This article contains descriptions of graphic violence.
Nearly three weeks after Memphis police fatally beat Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop, the city has released body-cam footage to the public, warning that it would show an abuse of power that was “heinous, reckless, and inhumane.” Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was stopped by multiple officers on the evening of January 7, allegedly for erratic driving, while returning home from a suburban park where he’d gone to take photos of the sunset.
In the footage released Friday, multiple cops run up to Nichols’ car with their weapons drawn, yelling at him to get out. “Motherfucker, you gonna get your ass blown the fuck up,” one officer screams. “I didn’t do anything,” Nichols replies, as they drag him out of the vehicle.
They order him on the ground, and he complies, sitting down. “Get on the fucking ground!” one officer yells. “Tase him!” another yells.
“All right, I’m on the ground,” Nichols says, fairly calmly, as they continue to threaten to tase him. The officers order him to lie down, and put his hands behind his back while continuing to scream at him. Nichols says, “You guys are really doing a lot right now. I’m just trying to go home.”
They appear to push Nichols further onto the ground, on his stomach. “Spray him,” an officer says again, and a brief scuffle ensues that’s hard to see on camera. Nichols rises and escapes down the street as at least one officer deploys a taser.
After a brief chase, the officers wait behind and call for backup. Another cop car arrives and heads in Nichols’ direction, sirens blaring. “I hope they stomp his ass,” one of the officers left behind says.
Another video shows Nichols lying on the ground later, in another location, surrounded by more officers. “Shut the fuck up,” one says, and they spray him with chemical irritant while trying to hold his hands down.
A third video shows Nichols, pinned to the ground by two officers on the side of the road. He is not moving much, and it’s unclear to what degree he’s still conscious. Another officer walks over and appears to kick Nichols in the head as he lies on the concrete. A fourth officer approaches and appears to strike Nichols repeatedly with a baton while he remains pinned on the ground.
Nichols is lifted to his feet with his hands held behind his back by two officers, while a third punches him repeatedly in the face. The beating goes on until officers pin him on the ground again and then get off him, leaving him lying there. More officers arrive and stand around him, talking. At least one laughs while describing what happened.
Before releasing the videos, four in all, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis condemned the officers. “I was outraged. It was incomprehensible to me. It was unconscionable,” she told CNN in an interview earlier this week. “I don’t think I’ve witnessed anything of that nature in my entire career. It was that bad.”
Eventually, after Nichols said he was struggling to breathe, an ambulance arrived, and he went to a nearby hospital in critical condition. Three days later, he died from his injuries.
The police department fired five of the officers involved: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith. On Thursday they were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression.
Nichols’ family and their attorneys, who viewed the footage earlier this week, said they were horrified to watch the beating. They compared it to the 1991 Los Angeles police assault of Rodney King. Nichols “was a human piñata for those police officers,” attorney Antonio Romanucci told reporters.
“No one rendered aid to him whatsoever,” Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, told reporters. Afterward “he was sitting there, and then he slumped over. And an officer walked over to him and said, ‘Sit back up mother–mf,’ while he’s handcuffed.”
On Friday, President Biden called Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, to express his sympathies. “I’m still trying to understand all of this and trying to wrap my head around all of this,” she told CNN earlier this week. “I’ll never have my baby again.”
Nichols, a FedEx driver with a 4-year-old son, was close with his mother, dropping by her house most nights for dinner. He had been nearby when the police stopped him, and they beat him just down the street from where she lived. In the video, Nichols cries out for her repeatedly.
This is a developing story.