The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, explained

A huddled group of mostly Black faces, some partially hidden by hats and scarves, are lit by candlelight. The Black woman at the center of the photo holds a candle near her face, which seems drawn with grief. The expressions on the faces surrounding her, seen dimly though the gloom, match hers.
People attend a candlelight vigil in memory of Tyre Nichols at the Tobey Skate Park on January 26, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Five Memphis police officers are facing murder charges over Nichols’s death.

Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died earlier this month after he was pulled over by Memphis police who violently beat him for three minutes, an incident shown in footage that was released Friday.

Lawyers for the Nichols family said in a press conference Monday that Nichols had been treated like a “human piñata.” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said in a video statement Thursday that the attack was “heinous, reckless, and inhumane.” Protests, most of them peaceful, sprang up across the country on Friday after the city of Memphis released video footage of Nichols’s brutal assault.

Five Black officers for the Memphis Police Department — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith — were fired after an internal departmental investigation found them to be “directly responsible” for the beating. They also were found to have violated departmental policies regarding excessive force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced Thursday that each would face charges of “second-degree murder, aggravated assault, two charges of aggravated kidnapping, two charges of official misconduct, and one charge of official oppression.” They could each face up to 60 years in prison for the murder charges alone.

Two Memphis Fire Department workers who were involved in Nichols’s initial care have been “relieved of duty,” according to the department. It’s not clear whether they could also face charges.

The US attorney for the Western District of Tennessee also announced that there is an open civil rights investigation into Nichols’s death, which could result in federal criminal charges.

Police stopped Nichols for reckless driving on January 7. Memphis’s police chief later told CNN that investigators have “been unable to substantiate” the claim that Nichols was driving recklessly, however. Nichols expressed confusion about the stop, saying in the footage that he was “just trying to go home.”

The officers who initially stopped him responded by threatening to “knock your ass the fuck out,” and to break his bones. Nichols fled from the stop; once he was caught, those threats were carried out. Officers encircled Nichols, and repeatedly punched, kicked, and hit him with a baton — sometimes while he was restrained on the ground.

He was taken to a hospital after his arrest, where he died three days later of injuries sustained in the beating.

Memphis’s special police unit turns deadly

It’s not the first time that police have turned a traffic stop into a deadly altercation. Deaths like Nichols’s are all too common, especially for Black Americans, who nearly every available study shows are stopped more often than white Americans.

As Lauren Bonds, the executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, told Vox in an interview Friday, “so many of the high-profile police killings that we’ve seen in recent years have started out as a traffic stop — started out as an expired tag, reckless driving, fines or warrants due.”

“One thing I’d say about the murder of Tyre in particular is that these officers were all part of a specific unit that was essentially designed to engage in, more or less, broken-windows policing, enforcing low-level offenses in order to identify higher-level crimes,” Bonds said.

The unit that Bonds referred to is called SCORPION, or the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods; it was founded in 2021, ostensibly to address violent street crime in Memphis by flooding high-crime areas with officers from the hand-picked special unit. In 2021, according to the New York Times, Memphis had 346 homicides; in September, the city was on edge after a teacher was abducted and murdered, and days later a gunman shot and killed four people.

Officers from the SCORPION Unit — 40 in total, according to the Washington Post — were trained to use routine traffic stops as opportunities to find and arrest people for more serious offenses.

According to Amber Sherman, an organizer with the official Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter, the high-crime areas the SCORPION unit was supposed to patrol “realistically are highly impoverished.” Local authorities, she told Vox on Sunday, “refuse to provide adequate resources to those areas and use it as an excuse to traumatize us and brutalize us, and in this case, murder us.”

Additionally, Ben Crump, an attorney for Nichols’s family, indicated the unit has had previous issues with excessive use of force. “We believe that this was a pattern and practice and that Tyre is dead because this pattern and practice went unchecked,” Crump said, according to the Washington Post.

On Saturday, the Memphis Police Department announced that it had disbanded its SCORPION unit, which had previously been suspended after Nichols was beaten by officers in the unit.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction — that was one of our key demands, and we were glad to have that answered, but we want to make sure that the full demands are answered,” Sherman said of the unit’s dissolution. “The use of these rogue task force units is one of the key ways that we’re over-criminalizing Black people.”

The fact that both Nichols and the officers accused of his murder are Black isn’t unusual, either in Memphis or in other incidents of police brutality. Memphis is “a pretty Black city,” Bonds told Vox; both the city and its police department are majority Black, and the department is led by a Black chief of police.

Ultimately, Bonds said, the race of those carrying out the violence is incidental.

“It’s systemic, and it’s ultimately state violence, which doesn’t really have a color except for the color of the people who are in power in this country,” she said. “So to say that there are no racial implications because there’s a Black victim and Black officers involved is a really myopic way of looking at the problem.”

Comprehensive data on police brutality is lacking, particularly when it comes to looking at violence other than shootings and information broken out by race, William Sousa, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, told the Los Angeles Times. But available information indicates there hasn’t been meaningful change in police violence since the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020.

Still, Bonds noted, prosecutors are more likely to bring cases against police officers involved in civilian killings since Floyd’s murder, which sparked a national protest movement, and there have been recent high-profile convictions, like Chauvin’s.

Why traffic stops can be dangerous for Black Americans

Black Americans are often taught — at home, through personal experience, and by the news — to see encounters with police, particularly traffic stops, as dangerous, if not potentially fatal.

The deaths of Americans like Nichols, or Daunte Wright, Sandra Bland, and Rayshard Brooks, validate that teaching. But it’s not just Black civilians who learn to fear traffic stops. As University of Arizona law professor Jordan Blair Woods wrote for the Michigan Law Review, police are taught to view stops as dangerous as well — not for those they’re stopping, but for themselves and their colleagues.

“Police academies regularly show officer trainees videos of the most extreme cases of violence against officers during routine traffic stops in order to stress that mundane police work can quickly turn into a deadly situation if they become complacent on the scene or hesitate to use force,” Woods wrote.

That training belies the fact that police officers are rarely injured in traffic stops. In Woods’s analysis of Florida traffic stop data from 2005 to 2014, the professor finds police had a 1 in 6.5 million chance of being killed during a traffic stop, and a 1 in 361,111 chance of being seriously injured. Overall, more than 98 percent of stops saw zero or minor injury to officers.

Data in other states mirrors Woods’s findings. In their book Suspect Citizens, UNC political science professor Frank Baumgartner, University of Texas government professor Derek A. Epp, and University of South Carolina political science professor Kelsey Shoub found that North Carolina “officers encountered violence about 24,000 times, or just over once per 1,000 stops.” When someone was injured at a stop, it was usually the person being stopped, the authors found.

Complicating matters for Black individuals is that the data suggests they’re stopped more often than white people — in some localities, by a large margin. The Stanford Open Policing Project, a database of more than 200 million traffic stops, found that in St. Paul, Black drivers are a little over three times more likely than white drivers to be pulled over; in San Jose, California, Black drivers are six times more likely to be stopped.

Arguably, drivers of all races ought to be stopped at about the same rate — anyone of any race or gender could engage in the reckless driving Nichols was allegedly stopped for. This has led to a number of researchers trying to understand the disparity in who is stopped. In general, their results suggest that the issue has to do with officer bias, conscious or unconscious, that casts Black people as inherently more dangerous than their white counterparts.

Tied to this idea is the question of what stops are for. As a group of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and Dartmouth College researchers led by Baumgartner wrote in a 2017 paper, in many departments, traffic stops are meant to serve a dual purpose: to deter illegal behavior and as a chance for officers to investigative past or potential crimes. In many ways, this system is akin to stop-and-frisk, a practice most prominently used in New York City that was meant to uncover criminal behavior through street searches. The program was ruled unconstitutional.

As Baumgartner wrote, “officers are trained to use traffic stops as a general enforcement strategy aimed at reducing violent crime or drug trafficking. When officers are serving these broader goals, they are making an investigatory stop, and these stops have little (if anything) to do with traffic safety and everything to do with who looks suspicious.”

If Black drivers are seen as more suspicious and police are trained to view traffic stops as dangerous in general, this creates a serious problem. When a Black driver is stopped, the interaction is more likely to begin with the officer even more on guard for trouble than they might otherwise be.

This can lead to the kind of rapid escalation seen in Nichols’s case, in which officers ended the stop through violence. Some officers favor beginning with violence, perhaps out of fear, like during the encounter that ended George Floyd’s life. Body camera footage released during Chauvin’s trial, for example, shows an officer drawing his weapon shortly after approaching Floyd’s vehicle and yelling at him to “Put your fucking hands up right now.”

These tactics, as well as the fear and bias that fuel them, put Black drivers in mortal danger. Law enforcement representatives have argued the stops are necessary — “we find drugs, evidence of other crimes … it’s a very valuable tool,” Kevin Lawrence, the Texas Municipal Police Association’s executive director, told the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2020 — but those discoveries are rare. Nationally, about 4 percent of stops resulted in searches or arrests in 2015, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

This has a number of activists and elected officials questioning whether the risks traffic stops pose to drivers — particularly Black drivers — are worth such a small number of arrests.

Is there hope for meaningful change?

Politicians both on the national and local levels have expressed sadness and outrage over Nichols’s death. President Joe Biden called Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, and his stepfather, Rodney Wells, on Friday to express his condolences, and Vice President Kamala Harris urged Congress in a statement to “act with urgency and pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. To truly honor Tyre Nichols’s memory, and the memory of so many others before him, we must demand that our justice system lives up to its name.”

A version of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act passed the House in 2021 before dying in the Senate; the bill would have ended qualified immunity for police officers, among a raft of other reforms.

Crump, one of the attorneys for Nichols’s family, put out a statement Wednesday calling for better data on police use of force in SCORPION and similar special units, insisting on “reform, transparency, and better oversight of these ‘saturation’ units, or for their removal as a tactic in American policing.”

He also called for the introduction of “Tyre’s Law,” which would create a “duty to intervene” for police who witness crimes being committed.

Some police departments have also taken steps to address inequitable and sometimes deadly traffic stops. Berkeley, California, for instance, approved a plan in 2021 to prohibit officers from conducting traffic stops for violations that have nothing to do with safety; Oakland has a similar policy in place. Other places, including Montgomery County, Maryland, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, have contemplated such measures as well. Washington, DC, stripped its police department of some of its authority to regulate traffic laws in 2019, empowering its transportation department to do enforcement instead. New York’s attorney general has recommended New York City make a similar change, and in 2022, New York City police announced they’d no longer use stops to randomly check for open warrants.

The long-term effectiveness of such measures remains to be seen. But they represent a small step away from the kind of policing that left Nichols, and so many before him, dead.

Update, January 29, 5:20 pm ET: This story was originally published on January 27 and has been updated with additional context from released video footage and the death of Tyre Nichols, as well as to include comments that came in after publication.

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