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People in Memphis differ on the path forward for the city's police department

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Memphis, Tenn., the city council has taken the first steps toward reforming the police department, weeks after the police beating of Tyre Nichols.

UNIDENTIFIED CITY CLERK: That item passes.

INSKEEP: The measures that passed are designed to limit police traffic stops and toughen the consequences for excessive force. They earned near unanimous council support. But when it comes to longer term visions for the police in their city, people in Memphis have differing views. NPR's Adrian Florido spoke with some of them.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: The neighborhood where Ricky Floyd lives - Frayser in North Memphis - has struggled with violent crime for a long time. He drove me to the intersection where, in the fall of 2020, it almost claimed his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)

FLORIDO: Floyd had left the Christian church where he's lead pastor and noticed a car following his truck too closely. He moved over to let it pass.

So you stopped right here?

RICKY FLOYD: I stopped right here. And then they stopped right here. All of a sudden, I hear shots.

FLORIDO: Floyd had one of his employees in the passenger seat.

FLOYD: And I said, man, are they shooting? And then he says, yeah, yeah, get out of here. Get out of here. So I spin around and just began to take off flying.

FLORIDO: He quickly realized he'd been shot. The bullet passed through his left leg. He later learned the shooter had beef with his passenger. He was caught in the crossfire of senseless violence, the kind Floyd says has left many Memphians feeling unsafe in their city.

FLOYD: I, the pastor, have been carjacked in Memphis. I, the pastor, have been shot. There is no public safety in Memphis, Tenn.

FLORIDO: Memphis has one of the nation's highest violent crime rates, which the city has responded to with a big push to hire more police. It's also why the police chief created the specialized crime unit whose officers last month pulled over and brutally beat Tyre Nichols. Pastor Floyd was horrified when he saw the video of that beating.

FLOYD: One word came to my mind, and that was, why?

FLORIDO: He knew the police would face backlash - justifiably so. He himself has served on the civilian review board that investigates complaints of excessive force by police. And he's glad the officers have been charged with murder. But he also worried.

FLOYD: Here's my concern and my fear that at the sake of firing, arresting those officers who were totally out of order, we're going to declaw and detooth our police officers.

FLORIDO: Floyd thinks the police are critical to keeping crime in Memphis from getting even worse. Across town in South Memphis Ann Adams had a different response to the video because of something that had happened to her 23-year-old son just a few weeks earlier. The two of them were about to leave their house. He'd gone out first to warm up the car. When she stepped out, she saw a police officer approaching the car.

ANN ADAMS: My son's sitting there with his head down, playing his video game. And I look up and see this police officer, and I say, what's the problem? How may I help you? Immediately after I asked him, how can I help you, he retreated to his vehicle.

FLORIDO: Adams says the officer and his partner drove off without a word. It disturbed her. He'd been approaching her son in her car on her property, but she didn't dwell on it too much until a few weeks later when she saw the video of Tyre Nichols being dragged out of his car and beaten.

ADAMS: It took me back to that day because my thought was it could have been my child. Every time I think about Tyre, I think about that day.

FLORIDO: As a Black woman, anxiety about the police has always been a part of Adams' life, but she'd never been driven to protest the police. In fact, she used to be a correctional officer and is now an armed private security guard. When she saw the video of Tyre Nichols, though, something changed. The Memphis police, she decided, needed to be severely reined in. And so for the first time in her life last week, she attended a city council meeting to demand that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAMS: I was born Black...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ms. Adams.

ADAMS: ...I will die Black...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Ms. Adams.

ADAMS: ...But I don't want to be murdered just because I am Black. And I don't want that fate for my son...

FLORIDO: When Councilman J.B. Smiley saw the video of Tyre Nichols being beaten, he knew the city council would have to act. Activists and residents like Ann Adams were demanding it.

J B SMILEY: We're at the peak of activism. We're at the peak of community engagement. And since it happened right here in Memphis, the community members are showing up.

FLORIDO: His question was, what kind of reforms should he pursue, and how aggressive could he be? Because, yes, activists and residents were showing up like never before to demand aggressive reforms, but he was also getting calls from people who shared the concerns of Pastor Ricky Floyd, who didn't want him to hamstring the police's ability to fight crime in their city.

SMILEY: It's the people who vote. Older, more seasoned Black people - what you will find out is they value the police. They believe police keeps them safe.

FLORIDO: As a son of Memphis, he knows that sentiment is widespread in his city.

SMILEY: There's the dilemma of being in this position. I have to be mindful of that, but I also have to be mindful of the people who live in East Memphis who just witness a young man be beat to death. Like, you have to think about these things and figure out what's the best solution.

FLORIDO: Smiley wasn't sure whether the council could legally ban the kind of specialized units whose officers beat Tyre Nichols, as many activists have been calling for. He's also not been talking about cutting the police department's budget, another demand.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL KNOCKING)

FLORIDO: But he and his council allies did introduce six ordinances last week. One limits the police's ability to pull people over for routine traffic violations. Another bans the use of unmarked cop cars. A third would make public the names of officers who use excessive force. All the ordinances passed a key first vote, making it the biggest step Memphis has taken in recent history to reform its police department. Activists in the crowd were pleased.

L J ABRAHAM: We're making greater strides this time than we have in the past.

FLORIDO: L.J. Abraham is part of a collective of activists who drafted the demands upon which most of the ordinances were based.

ABRAHAM: We still have a long way to go. There are some other things that we're seeking, but I think this is a good start. I think it is a good way to let the city of Memphis know that we are very serious about reimagining and reimaging police here in Memphis.

FLORIDO: Before Tyre Nichols' beating, the kinds of reforms that passed last week would have been near-impossible to get approved. But the video of the beating, Abraham says, changed everything.

ABRAHAM: That was one of those knee-jerk moments where you have to respond. Like, there's no other choice. You don't have a choice in this. You just have to get out and do what needs to be done to make sure that it never happens again to another person in your city.

FLORIDO: Everyone agrees on that, she says. Even if not all Memphians agree about what should come next for the city's police force.

Adrian Florido, NPR News, Memphis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.