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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

Your silence thunders

Tyre Nichols was 29. On January 7, five police officers literally beat the life out of him. One of the most trending Google searches recently is: “Tyre Nichols criminal record.” I can tell you that that search leads nowhere. I can tell you that Nichols was a law-abiding citizen and a pillar of his family. But would it matter? At Notre Dame, we advocate for the preservation of all life. We value it equally in every form, every community and every stage. Right? I could be wrong, but if there have been conversations about the death of Tyre Nichols (or others killed by the police since I’ve been at Notre Dame), I haven’t heard them. Our silence thunders in the halls where men like Bayard Rustin once walked.

Part of our university’s mission statement is providing a forum of free inquiry and open discussion. We’re all busy people and sometimes it’s hard to keep up with what’s going on in the world, but it’s high time that issues of social justice made their way to the forefront of at least some of our conversations. Our bond as students is deeper than just living on the same campus. It’s more than being from the same dorm or eating at the same dining hall. We’re the continuation of the legacy of men like Fr. Ted Hesburgh and Rev. John I. Jenkins (who helped integrate Notre Dame in 1944). We’ve been brought together because we have the potential to transform the world. That begins with an increased level of consciousness about social justice issues.

And of all American social justice issues, policing seems to be one of the most delicate. Stray too far one way and you’re advocating for a fantasy world where we don’t have anyone effectively enforcing our laws. But go too far the other way, and you utterly fail to hold men like Derek Chauvin and Daniel Pantaleo (the killers of George Floyd and Eric Garner) accountable for their actions.

Whatever your stance is on the solution to the problem, it’s undeniable that the American police force needs some reform. All the numbers scream that police brutality is a real problem in our country. And while African Americans are disproportionately affected by it, it’s not only an issue of race. Many unarmed people of other races have been unjustifiably murdered by police as well. In August of 2016, a 32 year old white man called the police to ask for help, as he was off the medication that he usually took for anxiety and schizophrenia. But when the police arrived, they handcuffed him, zip-tied his feet and kneeled on his back as he begged for his life. Eleven  minutes later, the man was dead. His name was Tony Timpa. Another name in a list of thousands who have been killed inexplicably by police. Shot. Tased. Crushed. Brutalized.

More people are killed by police in America than anywhere else in the developed world. Police departments in our country do not have outside oversight, which means that they’re not being held accountable by anybody when they misapply deadly force. In most states, the department has the final say on whether an officer’s level of force was warranted or not, and this is an obvious conflict of interest. It’s why the officers that killed Tony Timpa felt bold enough to kneel on him for 11 minutes. It’s why the ones that killed Tyre Nichols didn’t care that their body cams were recording the whole thing. 

Not only do our police require more independent oversight, they need more training as well. Policing is hard, so naturally we have a lot of respect for the people who’ve committed themselves to the job. But we don’t effectively train our police to do one of the most stressful and high-tension professions that we have in our society. According to the Bureau of Justice, the average length of time required to complete police academy training is 21 weeks, or 840 hours. Contrast that with police training in Germany, which takes two and a half years, or even with Finland whose police training lasts a full three years. 9 out of 10 police calls are for nonviolent encounters, and yet U.S. police academies spend more of their time on firearms training than on de-escalating the situations that constitute 90% of their job. And the solution here isn’t defunding the police, because when budget cuts have happened in police departments historically, training divisions are usually the first things scaled back.

To stop more people from becoming victims of extrajudicial police violence, the truth is that we need to hold our police departments more accountable. The officers responsible for Tyre Nichols murder were swiftly dealt with, but when it comes to this issue, we need to be proactive, not reactive. Legislation mandating that independent third parties investigate incidents of alleged excessive police violence would go a long way toward preventing many unnecessary deaths and life altering injuries. As would more training in de-escalation, and better care for the mental health needs of the people protecting and serving us.

And on the Notre Dame campus, we need more discussion and more activism surrounding this issue. Last month, there were posters in every dorm promoting the March for Life in Washington, DC. But how many times since June of 2020 have we as a community acknowledged the lives that continue to be taken as a result of police brutality? How many people know the names Tony Timpa or Philando Castille? 

We can’t live up to our calling as Notre Dame students until a desire to see justice done is burned on our conscience. Until we are heartbroken by the pain and injustice in our world. And until that broken heart compels us to action. But the first step is just having the courage to dialogue with each other on subjects like this one. 

The university has spoken out against police brutality in the past, but I believe it can do more. The NDPD’s Equity in Policing initiative is a great step, but we also need the university to put its weight behind legislation that will hold police nationwide accountable for applications of unjustified extreme force. I’m not saying that it’s up to the university or its students to fix our nation’s policing problem. But if we say nothing, then that says everything. 

Tyre Nichols was 29. Another black man killed unjustly by the police. Another American dream snuffed out long before it had a chance to be realized. I think that’s something worth talking about.  

Oluwatoni (Toni) is a freshman majoring in Business Analytics at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at oakintol@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.