Memphis Awaits Video of a Deadly Police Beating
MEMPHIS — The warnings have come repeatedly in recent days, each worse than the one before: Video recordings of a traffic stop earlier this month capture a scene of staggering brutality.
The police chief in Memphis condemned the actions of the officers who pulled over Tyre Nichols, who was hospitalized in critical condition after the encounter and later died, as “a failing of basic humanity.” Mr. Nichols’s mother had to stop the video when she tried watching it. A lawyer for the family said the video showed Mr. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, being pummeled like a “human piñata.”
Now, Memphis is bracing for the public release of the footage. The district attorney for Shelby County, Steve Mulroy, said he would provide an update on the investigation on Thursday afternoon.
The video may provide a measure of clarity about the encounter. Little has been disclosed about how the traffic stop over suspicion of reckless driving on Jan. 7 escalated into violence that left Mr. Nichols bloody, swollen and unconscious until he died three days later. But as the wait for its release has dragged out, civic leaders and others in Memphis have also raised concerns about the reaction the footage could provoke among residents who already feel anguished and outraged about Mr. Nichols’s death.
“Bless the city of Memphis,” the Rev. Kenneth Thomas, a pastor at Mt. Olive Cathedral Church, said as he prayed at a community gathering this week. “May you give peace and calm to all of us.”
Officials have sought to assuage residents, promising an aggressive pursuit of accountability. State and federal investigations have begun. Five police officers have already been fired after an internal inquiry by the Memphis Police Department. And after Mr. Nichols’s death, city officials quickly said the video footage would be released, in a step toward transparency that they described as “critically important.”
In Memphis, where nearly two-thirds of residents are Black, the fact that all five of the fired officers are Black has added a complicated layer of pain. “I was waiting for their faces to be on TV,” said Carrie Louis Pinson, a 73-year-old resident and longtime activist, “and when I saw all Black policemen — how could you do this?”
Officials have not disclosed how much video will be shared. In an interview with a local television station on Tuesday, Mr. Mulroy, the district attorney, said there were several videos of the confrontation, including police body camera footage.
In a video statement posted online on Wednesday, Cerelyn Davis, the police chief, said the public would see footage that was infuriating and unsettling. “This incident was heinous, reckless and inhumane,” she said, “and in the vein of transparency, when the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourself.”
“I expect you to feel what the Nichols family feels,” Chief Davis added. “I expect you to feel outrage in the disregard of basic human rights, as our police officers have taken an oath to do the opposite of what transpired on the video.”
Mr. Nichols was stopped on the evening of Jan. 7 near the southeastern corner of the city, roughly 100 yards from his parents’ house. The officers who stopped him were part of a group of specialized officers known as the Scorpion Unit, which was created in 2021 to patrol high-crime areas of Memphis.
The police, in an initial statement, said that a “confrontation occurred” as the officers approached Mr. Nichols’s vehicle and he ran away. There was then “another confrontation” as officers arrested him, the statement said. Mr. Nichols complained of shortness of breath, and an ambulance was called to take him to a hospital, officials said.
His family shared photographs of Mr. Nichols in the hospital, apparently unconscious and relying on a ventilator with his face bruised and swollen. He died on Jan. 10.
An independent autopsy commissioned by his family found that Mr. Nichols “suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to preliminary findings released on Tuesday.
Last week, the Police Department said the five officers had been fired after a “thorough review of the circumstances surrounding this incident,” which found that they had violated department policies on excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid. The Memphis Police Association, the union representing officers, has declined to comment on the accusations.
The officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — all joined the department between 2017 and 2020. Other officers are also being investigated for policy violations, and Chief Davis said that she has ordered a review of specialized groups like the Scorpion Unit.
The Memphis Fire Department has said that two of its employees who responded to the scene have also been “relieved of duty” while it conducts its own internal investigation.
Some of the first descriptions of what was recorded at the scene were shared on Monday by Mr. Nichols’s family and their lawyers after they were shown the video in private.
“‘What did I do?’ — that was his question,” Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who is representing the family, said of Mr. Nichols in the news conference. “‘What did I do?’”
Antonio Romanucci, another lawyer for Mr. Nichols’s family, said that Mr. Nichols was beaten by officers for three minutes. The video, he said, showed Mr. Nichols being pepper sprayed, shocked with a stun gun and restrained.
Mr. Nichols told the officers that he just wanted to go home, the lawyers said.
Mr. Nichols’s family is pushing for the officers to be charged with first-degree murder. “Anything short of that we will not accept,” Rodney Wells, Mr. Nichols’s stepfather, said at a news conference on Monday after watching the footage, which he described as “horrific.”
As the release of the video looms, officials, community leaders and Mr. Nichols’s family have implored residents not to let demonstrations morph into something more dangerous and destructive. “My hope is that they all remain peaceful because the last thing we need on top of this tragedy is for a protest to get out of hand,” said Ian Randolph, chairman of the Memphis NAACP’s political action committee.
Mr. Nichols’s death has fueled anger with the police department at a moment in Memphis when tensions over violence and crime have also prompted calls to expand the force. Those frustrations were intensified last year after a kindergarten teacher was abducted on an early morning jog and then found dead, and a shooting spree by a gunman who killed four people, wounded three others and set off a manhunt across the city.
“We just have a long way to go as a police department — especially a police department that looks a lot what the community looks like,” said Torrey Harris, a state lawmaker.
On Monday, a group of skateboarders held signs outside City Hall, gathering for a demonstration that was a tribute to Mr. Nichols, who maintained his childhood passion for skateboarding into adulthood.
“It’s terrifying, because it could have been me,” said Kameron Blakely, 25.
Waiting for the video to be made public, Mr. Blakely demanded answers and accountability. “I can’t let that slide,” he said.
Laura Faith Kebede is a reporter at the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis.