By Katie Rice-Guter
In 2014, Luther Tyus was finishing his sixth year as an officer with the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.
He had become well known within the department, winning accolades like the Meritorious Service Citation and Citizen’s Service Award for his work to build trust between officers and local communities. He had organized a series of police-run events, such as movie nights and school supply drives, to help foster positive ties with residents.
And his supervisor had recently transferred him to a specialized unit that served Housing Authority communities in north St. Louis City, with the hope that his approach could benefit one of the most troubled areas for police-community relations.
But in July of that year, when video of Eric Garner’s death became national news, Tyus was deeply disturbed. Garner died after New York City police placed him in a chokehold, a violation of the NYPD’s use-of-force policy. To Tyus, it was a blatant abuse of police authority.
Garner’s death added to a pattern of unarmed African-American men dying at the hands of police. A month later, in August 2014, the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, centered the national conversation on the St. Louis region.
Although Tyus recognizes viscerally the dangers and uncertainties of police work, he became focused on addressing the factors that he sees contributing to unnecessary police violence, such as officers’ fight-or-flight response, implicit bias against African-American suspects, and ineffective investigations of officers who have used deadly force.
“As a police officer, you may be dealing with real criminals who are trying to take your life, and you need to understand that,” he said, explaining that police do, at times, need to use lethal force. “But mistakes don’t have to happen at the rate that they’re happening.”
Police use of force
In his off-hours, Tyus began studying police use of force, drawing insights from publications on psychology, sociology, criminal justice and military science.
As his interest progressed, he began to collaborate with Sean Joe, the Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development. Joe leads the Race and Opportunity Lab, a project of the Center for Social Development at the Brown School.
Tyus eventually became a volunteer member of the Race and Opportunity Lab’s research team, contributing to studies about police-related policies, while still working full time. When his night shifts were peaceful, he’d study research project spreadsheets from his squad car, analyzing the data.
This path ultimately led him to leave the police force and enroll at the Brown School, where he is a first-year MSW student specializing in policy. In addition to his coursework, Tyus now works as a graduate research assistant with the Race and Opportunity Lab.
In his work with the Race and Opportunity Lab, Tyus is currently conducting a systematic review of policy recommendations for investigating police-involved shootings or allegations of excessive use of force. How can such investigations be structured to best ensure fair decisions? When appropriate, how can investigations result in genuine consequences? The end product will be a policy brief tailored to the St. Louis metro area.
The team’s process, Joe said, involves “looking at all existing policy recommendations, categorizing them, and trying to suggest what approach might be the most amenable to support the healthy development of black males in our region. That’s our lens.”
Joe emphasizes the search for healing policies: policy solutions that support community healing by ensuring that investigations of officer conduct are conducted with “a sense of fairness, openness, and the idea that the truth will be unearthed, regardless of what it says. That’s emotional healing, for those directly involved and those observing, the broader public.”
The work took on particular resonance this fall, following the announcement of the Stockley verdict, in which a St. Louis police officer was acquitted of first-degree murder charges in the death of a young black man. Protests and demonstrations followed, with activists united around the refrain: ‘Stop killing us.’
“I was like, ‘I cannot believe we are here again,’” Tyus said. “We’re doing this again because we haven’t fixed the problem.”
‘The world opened up’
One of Tyus’s primary aims is to integrate a more holistic, preventative approach into officer training programs.
He wants officers to understand, for example, the ways their brains are primed to react in threatening situations, and to have the training to respond more appropriately. He wants officers to know about the ways that triggers in their environment, as well as implicit bias, can send them into a hyper-vigilance beyond what a situation warrants.
His hope is that requiring such proactive training — and introducing better systems to track excessive use-of-force incidents — can dramatically reduce the number of mistakes.
As in his research with the Race and Opportunity Lab, Tyus also sees promising ways that local laws and police departmental policies can change the incentives and consequences of using force.
“In the current system, the incentive for killing an unarmed man generally is: you lose your current police job, you get another job, and you’re probably going to get a better paying job,” Tyus said. “There’s a pattern. So the incentives need to be changed, what’s rewarded for good policing versus what’s shunned.”
Tyus came to the Brown School with the intention of opening a police institute. With Joe’s encouragement, he is also considering pursuing a PhD. As his plans take shape, Tyus is glad to be at the Brown School, laying the foundation for the work ahead.
“I got here, and it feels like the world opened up. Now I’m learning about game theory and economic development and how to spot trends,” he said. “This is a place where I get to use my mind, to listen to the hurt and pain of other people throughout the nation, and try to figure out how to help them all.”