On January 8, the Memphis Police Department released a statement about a “confrontation” between police officers and a 29-year-old Black man, Tyre Nichols, that had taken place the previous evening.
Body-cam footage released on Friday night shows glaring differences between the police’s version of events and reality: Five officers brutally beat Nichols to his death.
The press release underscores the way such statements use omissions, discrepancies, and passive language to describe violent interactions with people they have killed. The initial MPD press release reads:
As officers approached the driver of the vehicle, a confrontation occurred, and the suspect fled the scene on foot. Officers pursued the suspect and again attempted to take the suspect into custody. While attempting to take the suspect into custody, another confrontation occurred; however, the suspect was ultimately apprehended. Afterward, the suspect complained of having a shortness of breath, at which time an ambulance was called to the scene.
Video footage shows the details of the initial “confrontation”: Police ran to Nichols’ car with weapons drawn and yelled at him to get on on the ground. Even as Nichols complied, the cops screamed at him and tased him. “Motherfucker, you gonna get your ass blown the fuck up,” one officer yelled.
“You guys are really doing a lot right now,” Nichols said. “I’m just trying to go home.”
In the second “confrontation,” police repeatedly kicked, punched, and struck Nichols with a baton while pinning him down before leaving him lying on the ground.
The MPD release is eerily similar to the statement the Minneapolis Police Department released after the 2020 murder of George Floyd, entitled “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” At no point does the Minneapolis PD statement acknowledge the officers’ use of excessive force or Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Instead, the 200-word statement read:
Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.
At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.
A 2021 Guardian investigation of police killings in California found at least a dozen cases over five years in which police statements misrepresented events, “with major omissions about the officers’ actions, inaccurate narratives about the victims’ behaviors, or blatant falsehoods about decisive factors.” Some statements referred to “medical emergencies” without acknowledging that officers caused the emergencies; some falsely claimed that the alleged suspect was armed. In most cases, the investigation found, “media outlets repeated the police version of events with little skepticism.”