Tyre Nichols likely took in one last sunset at his beloved Shelby Farms Park before Memphis police killed him, his mother says. He loved looking at and taking photographs of sunsets, RowVaughn Wells said at a press conference on Friday—hours before officials released video documenting his fatal Jan. 7 beating by five police officers, who have since been arrested and charged with murder. “My son was a beautiful soul. He was a good boy. No one’s perfect but he was damn near,” she said.
Wells, who said she had not yet processed her grief, noted Friday that she had not watched the entire video but knew the details.
As the family’s attorney Ben Crump pointed out at Friday’s press conference that the video would show Nichols calling for his mother in his last words, her eyes shifted down to the ground. As she took the mic shortly afterwards, Wells spoke through tears about her pain as a mother.
“For a mother to know their child was calling them in need and I wasn’t there for him; do you know how I feel right now because I wasn’t there for my son?” Wells said. “You know it’s funny he always said he was going to be famous one day. I didn’t know this is what he meant but we want justice for my son.”
Video shows violent, repeated beating
Bodycam and surveillance camera video released Friday evening showed Nichols yelling out repeatedly for his mother and trying to catch his breath. “I didn’t do anything,” he had said as officers first pulled him out of the car. After officers tased Nichols, he got up to run.
The video documents a brutal beating during which two officers hold Nichols down and another kicks him, possibly in the head. One officer can be heard saying “I’m gonna baton the f— out of you” before hitting Nichols repeatedly with a baton. Two officers hold him upright while a third repeatedly hits him in his face and his body.
Later on an officer tells him, “you can’t go nowhere man” and “you about to get sprayed again.” Nichols is later seen slumped against a car, barely moving.
The injuries he faced were so severe that he died three days later. His family’s attorney said Nichols dealt with “extensive bleeding.”
The videos were posted to a public Memphis City Vimeo account. They contain graphic and disturbing scenes.
Ahead of the video’s release, Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis described on CNN just how “alarming” the video footage was and that it showed “acts that defy humanity.”
“I was outraged. It was incomprehensible to me. It was unconscionable. And I felt that I needed to do something and do something quickly,” Davis said. “I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything of that nature in my entire career. It was that bad.”
U.S. prepares for protests
In anticipation of a visceral community response, President Joe Biden urged Americans to keep their protests peaceful and avoid violence. “I join Tyre’s family in calling for peaceful protest. Outrage is understandable, but violence is never acceptable,” Biden said in a statement on Thursday.
Nichols’ mother has also requested people to protest peacefully. “I want each and every one of you to protest in peace. I don’t want us burning up our cities, tearing up the streets because that’s not what my son stood for,” she said on Thursday. “And if you guys are here for me and Tyre, you will protest peacefully.”
5 officers charged with murder
Prosecutors said Thursday all five officers are to blame for Nichols’s death. “While each of five individuals played a different role in the incident in question, the actions of all of them resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols and they are all responsible,” said Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy at a press conference.
Nichols’ family’s lawyers said Nichols was killed following what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop that turned into a brutal beating reminiscent of the 1991 assault on Rodney King in 1991.
“The news today from Memphis officials that these five officers are being held criminally accountable for their deadly and brutal actions gives us hope as we continue to push for justice for Tyre,” the attorneys and family said in a statement following the arrests.
Nichols, who is Black, died three days after the traffic stop.
“It was so violently intentional. There really was no purpose or basis to be that violent or brutal against a defenseless human being. I mean, this is a citizen. These Memphis police officers are charged with protecting their citizens and instead they literally unabashedly beat him for over three minutes,” attorney Antonio Romanucci told TIME on Tuesday.
The five officers involved—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr., and Justin Smith—were fired on Jan. 20 after an investigation found they “violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid.” All of the officers are Black.
In addition to second-degree murder, the officers faced charges of official misconduct, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, and official oppression.
Two firefighters involved in the traffic stop have been put on leave and two Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies have also been “relieved of duty.” The deputies responded to the scene that night, but it’s unclear what role they played in the assault on Nichols.
“Having watched the videotape for the first time tonight, I have concerns about two deputies who appeared on the scene following the physical confrontation between police and Tyre Nichols,” Shelby County Sheriff Flyof Bonner said in a statement Friday.
In 2016, Haley, a then-corrections officer, was accused of participating in a prison assault that left one inmate unconscious, according to a complaint filed to the U.S. District Court in Tennessee, NBC reported Wednesday.
Romanucci and fellow attorney for the family Ben Crump said that the video showed that Nichols was pepper sprayed, restrained, and shocked with a stun gun.
Romanucci said that Nichols was a “human pinata for those police officers,” the Associated Press reported.
Nichols worked at a FedEx facility, had a 4-year-old son, and had his mother’s name tattooed on his arm, according to the New York Times. He also had Crohn’s disease and suffered from severe weight loss, ABC News reported. Officials said his family described him as a “cheerful” individual who loves skateboarding and enjoying sunsets over Shelby Farms Park on the city’s east side.
Here’s what to know about the Nichols’ lethal encounter with Memphis police, what investigations are underway, and the official video of the incident.
What happened at the traffic stop?
In an initial description of the incident, police wrote in a Jan. 8 statement that as officers attempted to make a traffic stop for reckless driving, a “confrontation occurred, and the suspect fled the scene on foot.” The statement added that officers pursued Nichols and in attempting to do so “another confrontation occurred” and that he was later apprehended. The statement noted that Nichols “complained of having a shortness of breath” and he was transported to hospital in critical condition.
Officials have said that Nichols had a medical emergency. But Nichols’ family accuse police of causing him to have a heart attack.
Crump also pushed back on an initial statement from the police that a “confrontation occurred” in an interview with TIME on Tuesday. “It’s hard to see Tyre doing anything that resembles a confrontation… but everybody can judge for themselves how unnecessary this was.”
The Nichols family hired a forensic pathologist to review the case and his family’s lawyers say that Nichols’s injuries are consistent with what is shown on the video, following a preliminary independent autopsy. “There were large amounts of blood found in the deep tissues of his body,” Romanucci says.
“When people see this video it’s going to remind them of Rodney King; tragically, the only difference in many regards is that Tyre didn’t survive,” Crump says.
What is the reaction to the video?
On Thursday, Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis called for calm ahead of the release of what she called the “heinous, reckless, and inhumane” death of Tyre Nichols.
A source told CNN that authorities expect to release the footage on Friday. Law enforcement across the U.S. are bracing for demonstrations and unrest following the video’s release, multiple sources told CNN.
“What is so alarming about the video is the escalation from the moment they encountered Tyre—and that escalation only increases,” Crump says. “The first words that you hear Tyre utter is, ‘what did I do?’ And there’s never an answer for that.”
Memphis police announced Monday that they met with Nichols’ family to view the video recordings and that they would comply with investigations. “Transparency remains a priority in this incident, and a premature release could adversely impact the criminal investigation and the judicial process. We are working with the District Attorney’s Office to determine the appropriate time to release video records publicly,” Chief Cerelyn Davis said in the statement.
How is Tyre’s family reacting to the charges?
For the family, justice entails “criminal culpability and civil accountability,” Crump says. It means charging the officers with first-degree murder. “Anything short of that we will not accept,” Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said at a news conference on Monday after viewing the footage.
Tyre’s family and lawyers issued a statement Thursday, saying that they felt hope following the arrests of five police officers.
At a vigil on Thursday night, Nichols’s mother RowVaughn Wells warned of the “horrific” nature of the video but implored supporters to demonstrate nonviolently when it is released to the public. “I don’t want us burning up our city, tearing up the streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” she said, according to the Associated Press. “If you guys are here for me and Tyre, then you will protest peacefully. You can get your point across but we don’t need to tear up our cities, people, because we do have to live in them.”
What is the Scorpion police unit?
Prosecutors confirmed Thursday that at least some of the five officers involved in Nichols’s death are part of the Scorpion Unit—a special law enforcement division focused on “violent crime reduction.”
The SCORPION unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods, was created in November 2021 amid soaring violent crime in the city.
This week, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced a review of all specialized police units, including Scorpion.
Romanucci, the attorney for the family, asked in a CBS interview: “They were in unmarked cars, why are they conducting traffic stops?”
What investigations are ongoing?
Nichols’s fatal encounter with Memphis police has sparked state, federal, and local probes. The FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Department of Justice have opened a civil rights investigation. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is also looking into whether police officers broke any laws.
The Memphis Police Association, the city agency’s union, declined to comment on the firing of the five officers. “The citizens of Memphis, and, more importantly, the family of Mr. Nichols deserve to know the complete account of the events leading up to his death” and what may have contributed to it, Lt. Essica Cage-Rosario, the union’s president, said in a statement.
This is not the first time Memphis police have come under fire for excessive force; in 2018, local law enforcement repeatedly shot Martavious Banks after an attempted traffic stop. Footage of the arrest was publicly released in 2020. Banks later settled a lawsuit against the city in 2021 after an investigation highlighted that police had their body cameras turned off—violating department policy.
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