My cousin Ronald S., a retired New York City police officer, died after a short illness recently. He was laid to rest two Saturdays ago. I couldn’t attend his funeral in New York, but I thought of him a lot that weekend. It was the same weekend footage of the brutal, ultimately fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five Black Memphis cops was aired to the horror of a nation.
Ronald was always the cousin I was most excited to see whenever his family visited us in Philly. Though he was several years older and very tall for his age, he never pretended to be too mature to chase me and my friends down the alley behind the house during an impromptu game of cops and robbers.
Whenever he cornered us, it always felt as if the stakes were higher than usual because he brought so much drama and energy to the game. Even while staring down several zip guns made with soda can tabs, clothes pins and rubber bands nailed to old banister wood, he always laughed before quickly disarming us.
I didn’t know Ronald the New York City cop as well as I knew Ronald the teenage cousin of my youth, but by all accounts, he was a good cop. He earned many commendations during his decades on the force and seemed to enjoy the job despite its many challenges.
One of my biggest regrets is having fallen out of regular contact with him over the decades. He and my sister remained close and she always made a point to see him whenever she visited NYC.
The weekend of Ronald’s funeral was the same weekend the mugshots of the five Memphis officers who killed Tyre Nichols were burned into our collective consciences.
In a billion years, I could never imagine my cousin, who was a fan of soap operas in the early ’80s, participating in a traffic stop beating of a defenseless man that could easily be his cousin, his brother or one of his friends. He was too empathetic for that.
Theories swirl over what could have triggered the five officers to reach so deep into their own reservoirs of hatred and cruelty to inflict so much pain on a defenseless fellow citizen.
Surely there was some inciting incident that sparked the beat down before the dash cams and the officers’ body cams turned on, apologists for the cops wondered aloud. Did Tyre Nichols really try to grab an officer’s gun as one of the fired cops alleged to fellow officers who arrived on the scene minutes later? Would even that have justified a relentless beating that dwarfed what happened to Rodney King in 1992 in sheer brutality?
The most naive theories are those that dismissed race as a factor simply because the victim and his tormentors were Black. For once, a public service institution permeated by a history of white supremacy had clean hands, they argued.
The most thoughtful responses point out the phenomena of internalized bias imposed by the institution of policing itself. Even many officers of color buy into a view of Black and brown citizens as somehow less deserving of respect — or even the right to survive — a traffic stop.
I’m inclined to believe that there’s something about the way officers across the country are trained today that makes many of them susceptible to the “warrior mentality” instead of one inclined toward public service and respect for all citizens equally.
Cops are justifiably fearful of a heavily armed civilian population; in response to the tsunami of guns in the communities they patrol, they feel they have to become more militarized and less vulnerable to empathy and human decency.
This leads to more violent responses to what cops consider even minor acts of defiance, especially by minorities already dehumanized by decades of negative and racist propaganda swirling through police culture.
I’d like to think my cousin Ronald, who was a beloved figure in his Harlem neighborhood, always rejected the laziness of internalized bias against minorities even while patrolling the streets of New York during the “stop-and-frisk” years.
When I look at a photo of Ronald, I see no hint of the five officers who will stand trial for second-degree murder in Memphis. I see a man who was content to be a good cop in an age when being decent to minority citizens in some municipalities borders on dereliction of duty.
R.I.P., Ronald S.
R.I.P., Tyre N.
Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also co-hosting a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. “In Other News” is now streaming on our website, YouTube, plus Spotify, Apple and Google Podcasts.
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.