Key Biscayne Chief Frank Sousa looked at the tape and recoiled in outrage.
“It’s very difficult to watch. It tarnishes the reputation of the officers that do their job the correct way,” Sousa said.
Tyre Nichols’ fatal encounter with police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, recorded in video made public Friday night, is a glaring reminder that efforts to reform policing have failed to prevent more flashpoints.
Sousa, who came to affluent Key Biscayne from urban Fort Lauderdale, agreed with calls for changes in police culture. He said when he started 16 months ago, the first thing he did was to review the use of force policy for island officers. The force protects the island’s 15,000 residents but also interacts with over a million visitors a year to the “island paradise” off Miami.
“We have a good policy in place,” he said, noting the work of his predecessor Charles Press. But he agreed law enforcement needs to recognize distrust of police remains pervasive in certain communities and police agencies must continue to change.
“Everyone wants to feel safe, that when they call an authority figure, that there will be a good interaction,” he said. Key Biscayne, as an accredited agency, implements de-escalation policies and reinforces them with repeated training for encounters with “non-compliant” individuals.
It’s a job he takes personally.
“I look at every call for service, and I periodically review body camera. Every leader should be checking camera on a random basis,” Sousa said.
“I have yet to see one instance where an officer did not act correctly” on the island.
Nationwide, police have killed roughly three people per day consistently since 2020, according to academics and advocates for police reform who track such deaths.
Nearly 32 years ago, Rodney King’s savage beating by police in Los Angeles prompted heartfelt calls for change. They’ve been repeated in a ceaseless rhythm ever since, punctuated by the deaths of Amadou Diallo in New York, Oscar Grant in Oakland, California, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and so many others.
George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in 2020 summoned a national reckoning that featured federal legislation proposed in his name and shows of solidarity by corporations and sports leagues.
The five Black officers are now fired and charged with murder and other crimes in the Jan. 10 death of Nichols, a 29-year-old skateboarder, FedEx worker and father to a 4-year-old boy.
From police brass and the district attorney’s office to the White House, officials said Nichols’ killing points to a need for bolder reforms that go beyond simply diversifying the ranks, changing use-of-force rules and encouraging citizens to file complaints.
“The world is watching us,” Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said. “If there is any silver lining to be drawn from this very dark cloud, it’s that perhaps this incident can open a broader conversation about the need for police reform.”
President Joe Biden joined national civil rights leaders in similar calls to action.
“To deliver real change, we must have accountability when law enforcement officers violate their oaths, and we need to build lasting trust between law enforcement, the vast majority of whom wear the badge honorably, and the communities they are sworn to serve and protect,” the president said.
The Nichols case — just one of the brutality cases to make national news this month — exposes an uncomfortable truth: More than two years since the deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks touched off protests, policing reforms have not significantly reduced such killings.
Many states –including Florida– approved nearly 300 police reform bills after Floyd’s murder, creating civilian oversight of police, more anti-bias training, stricter use-of-force limits and alternatives to arrests in cases involving people with mental illnesses, according to a recent analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the University of Maryland.
Despite calls to “defund the police,” an Associated Press review of police funding nationwide found only modest cuts, driven largely by shrinking revenue related to the coronavirus pandemic. Budgets increased and more officers were hired for some large departments, including New York City’s.
Locally, Key Biscayne’s force has expanded to 38 officers. On Friday, as cities around the nation braced for the release of the Nichols video, the Village launched a new police boat. The increase in staffing now allows the island’s marine patrol unit to operate more regularly, Sousa said.
Sousa doesn’t feel that any further changes in Florida law are necessary, even though there has been criticism of some provisions of the “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights,” which places rules on police investigations. Sousa said he has the tools he needs as an administrator.
“Training works,” he said.
Still, there was pushback from some about the reaction to the Nichols case.
Patrick Yoes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, disagreed with the conclusion that policing must change. This was not “legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong,” Yoes said. “This is a criminal assault under the pretext of law.”
The Associated Press reported the background of this story. Associated Press reporters Noreen Nasir and Adrian Sainz contributed from Memphis, Tennessee. Aaron Morrison reported from New York, and Claudia Lauer from Philadelphia.
Tony Winton is the editor-in-chief of the Key Biscayne Independent and president of Miami Fourth Estate, Inc. He worked previously at The Associated Press for three decades winning multiple Edward R. Murrow awards. He was president of the News Media Guild, a journalism union, for 10 years. Born in Chicago, he is a graduate of Columbia University. His interests are photography and technology, sailing, cooking, and science fiction.