Written by: Helen Hope Kimbrough

A system is defined as a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized framework or method. 

– Oxford Dictionary

Tyre Nichols, a young soul at the age of 29, was brutally murdered by law enforcement. A video where five police officers kicked, punched and beat Tyre was released on Friday, January 27, for all the world to see. It was yet another example of a simple traffic stop that resulted in his death days later.

I have not watched the video. However, I have been reading news articles and listening to interviews, particularly from Tyre’s mom, recognizing her son as a good, free spirit with so much life to live. On the other hand, my heart goes out to the officers’ families as well – for their lives will never be the same.

Those in law enforcement normally describe their job as to “Protect and serve.” The oath that many officers in this field recite, states this:

On my honor, I will never betray my integrity, my character or the public trust. I will always have the courage to hold myself and others accountable for our actions. I will always maintain the highest ethical standards and uphold the values of my community, and the agency I serve.

This is a bold statement! But is it thoughtfully being enforced inside the system? Especially in holding one and others accountable to do the right thing. In the cases of Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, and others, officers were around but did not stand up against their counterparts or the broken system – based on power and dehumanization.

Trevor Noah posed a powerful question in a prior incident of police brutality when he asked, “Where are the good apples in the system?” Often, it is mentioned that these negative encounters are a result of the bad apples. No one doubts this. However, “where are the cops who are stopping the ‘bad’ cops?” Who is rooting them out? Is it just the apples or is it a larger problem that has consumed the tree?

When I think of this system of law enforcement (and others such as affordable housing, education, healthcare, etc.), there are many individuals who enter with a mindset of making a difference through service. Unfortunately, this doesn’t last for everyone, and people begin to take the shape of a system that they once hoped to dismantle.

As a mom of two African American sons, I cannot watch these senseless and horrendous acts. So how have I been processing everything this time around? I’ve been more protective of my well-being by meditating, praying and taking nature walks. And of course, I’ve been in constant communication with my sons to uplift, encourage and assure them that they are loved while listening and engaging in conversations that they want to have around these issues.

Ultimately, the issue of police brutality is systemic. At Next Stage, we typically offer essays that include practical next steps and advice – but when it comes to systemic issues, sometimes the most important thing we can do is to admit that there is no easy answer, then actively engage the questions that follow. We can’t offer three steps to improve the situation – but we are challenging our own selves and others to grapple with the tough questions:

  • How do I hold myself and others accountable to bring about change?
  • How do I educate myself and recognize when systems go left, especially in ways that often go unseen?
  • How do I conduct conversations with a human lens and framework to help the community?
  • How do I become the world that I want to see?

These are deep questions without easy answers – but it’s a time for deep reflection and change. It’s time to stop blaming these incidents on bad apples and to start taking a long, hard look at how we as agencies, nonprofits, businesses and faith communities can help change our systems and build a world that is just and safe for every single member of our community.