What we learned from the Tyre Nichols video

A demonstrator holds a sign reading “Abolition NOW!” at a protest over the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee.
Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols on January 27, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Body camera footage shows Memphis police viciously beating Nichols, who died three days later.

Video of five Memphis police officers punching and kicking Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old Black man who died after police escalated a traffic stop on January 7 into a brutal beating, was released on Friday by the city of Memphis. Multiple video clips show police kicking Nichols in the head, beating him with a baton, and punching him while restraining him — ultimately resulting in his death at St. Francis Hospital on January 10.

The city released the video — more than an hour of total footage between four clips — at 7 pm Eastern time on Friday. Three of the clips are taken from body cameras and include sound, while one silent clip comes from a light pole camera.

Though one of the videos shows the moments preceding the beatings, the videos do not show Nichols driving erratically, the reason police gave for pulling him over in the first place. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis later told NBC that her department couldn’t substantiate that claim.

The five police officers, all of whom are Black and all of whom have been fired, were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression on Thursday; if found guilty, they each face up to 60 years in prison for the murder charge alone.

Officers say that they did not film the initial encounter with Nichols, and the footage begins after an officer has already pulled Nichols out of his car and backup is arriving at the scene. The officers appear to Taser Nichols, at which point he frees himself and runs from the officers. After a brief chase, officers pepper-spray Nichols before beating him.

All five officers belonged to the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION Unit, which was created in 2021 and designed to saturate high-crime areas with police officers; the unit’s name is short for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The program has been suspended in the wake of Nichols’s death, the Washington Post reports.

The disturbing video footage at times shows officers restraining Nichols as an officer kicks him in the upper body and head, beating him with a police baton, and punching him. At points, Nichols staggers or attempts to stand and screams for his mother. In one video, an officer says he’s going to “baton the fuck out” of Nichols; video footage also shows officers speculating that Nichols was high during the encounter. No drugs were found in Nichols’s car, according to an officer on the scene, and police claims that Nichols reached for one of the officers’ guns as he attempted to run away are also not supported by the video evidence.

An initial police statement from January 8 describes the beating only as a “confrontation” and does not mention the violence Nichols suffered at the hands of police, but does include the details that the officers involved were relieved of duty and that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation was handling the case.

One video also shows Nichols waiting more than 20 minutes to be transported to a nearby hospital, slumped over and propped up beside a police car. According to an autopsy report, Nichols “suffered excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating.”

Protests — mostly peaceful, as Nichols’s mother RowVaughn Wells and stepfather Rodney Wells requested — sprang up in cities across the country after the videos were released. “I don’t want us burning up cities, tearing up our streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” Nichols’s mother said Thursday in anticipation of the footage being made public, according to NPR. In Memphis, protesters shut down the I-55 bridge, which connects Memphis and West Memphis and crosses the Mississippi River.

In addition to his mother and stepfather, Nichols leaves behind a 4-year-old son, as well as a community of skateboarders and friends in his native Sacramento. Nichols was an avid photographer, the Associated Press reports; on the evening he was stopped and beaten by police, Nichols was driving home from photographing the sky at a local park. Nichols came to Memphis on the eve of the Covid-19 pandemic and ended up staying with his mother and stepfather; he was less than 100 yards from home when he was fatally beaten by police.

Nichols can be heard in the video attempting to deescalate the situation and return to his family’s house, telling officers, “I’m just trying to go home.”

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