The grieving family of Tyre Nichols called for calm across the United States on Friday as a country racked by racial and cultural divisions witnessed for itself visceral new video evidence of another young Black man enduring brutal, deadly violence at the hands of police.
Authorities in Memphis, Tenn., released a series of video clips — an hour-long compilation of footage and audio from body-worn police cameras as well as a static mounted security camera — depicting the traffic stop, foot chase and street-corner takedown that ultimately led to the 29-year-old man’s death.
The video, widely vilified by officials before its public release and likened to the explosive 1991 police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, shows Nichols fleeing the scene of the initial stop, then later enduring a savage series of punches, kicks and blows from a retractable police baton.
Anticipation surrounding the video evoked the national mood after the death of George Floyd during a violent takedown in Minneapolis in 2020 that sparked a months-long reckoning with racial tension and police brutality, as well as persistent and sometimes violent protests in cities across the country.
Nichols’ mother RowVaughn Wells and his stepfather Rodney Wells urged people in Memphis and across the country to show their support for the family by protesting peacefully, but it was unclear whether it would make any difference.
“We do not want any type of uproar. We do not want any type of disturbance. We want peaceful protests,” Rodney Wells told a news conference earlier Friday in Memphis.
“That’s what the family wants. That’s what the community wants. I got a text today from one of my supervisors about an alert telling her, ‘Don’t be in crowds tonight.’ We shouldn’t have that. We need to do this peacefully.”
Five former officers, all of them Black, face murder charges following the Jan. 7 confrontation with Nichols, a FedEx employee and father of a four-year-old boy. Each is charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.
The video shows officers, winded from chasing Nichols on foot, struggling to deal with the residual impact of pepper spray. On the audio track, they speculate about Nichols being “on something.” At one point, Nichols is heard crying out several times for his mother, who lives just blocks away.
Eventually, Nichols is dragged over and propped up against a police vehicle, only to slump over in a stupor multiple times. It appears to take at least 20 minutes before medical personnel appear to attend to him.
“I still haven’t had time to grieve yet. I’m still dealing with the death of my son,” RowVaughn told the news conference.
“I want to say to the five police officers that murdered my son: you also disgraced your own families when you did this. But you know what, I’m gonna pray for you and your families. Because at the end of the day, this shouldn’t have happened.”
Protesters were gathering in the streets of Memphis after the video was released, as well as in other U.S. cities including Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but they appeared to be well-organized and peaceful.
Ben Crump, the family’s lawyer, cheered how promptly the charges were laid, calling it the “blueprint” for similar cases of police brutality in the future, regardless of ethnicity.
“It was the police culture in America that killed Tyre Nichols,” Crump said.
“We want to proclaim that this is the blueprint going forward for any time any officers, whether they be Black or white, will be held accountable … We won’t accept less going forward in the future.”
All five officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith — were taken into custody, but at least four of them had posted bond and been released Friday.
Antonio Romanucci, another member of the family’s legal team, singled out the kidnapping charges as especially remarkable in a case involving a police takedown.
“Think about the weight of a kidnapping charge being brought against officers who are wearing a badge, a shield, carrying weapons on their duty belt, acting under the cover of law,” Romanucci said.
He likened the actions of the officers, describing them as a “pack of wolves,” to an act of terrorism.
“It was designed to terrorize the victim,” Romanucci said. “Once those officers were there, they knew their actions were going to cause death. And indeed it did.”
The contents of the video were said to be so explosive, police officials decided it would be best to release it later Friday after schools have let out and businesses are closed.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis described the actions of the officers as “heinous, reckless and inhumane,” noting the department has been unable to substantiate the reckless driving allegation that prompted the traffic stop.
During the initial stop, the video shows the officers were “already ramped up, at about a 10,” she said. The officers were “aggressive, loud, using profane language and probably scared Mr. Nichols from the very beginning.”
Christopher Wray, director of the FBI, told an unrelated news conference Friday that he had seen the video and was “appalled” by its contents. He said field officers are standing ready to work with state and local law enforcement agencies if necessary.
U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the Wells family earlier Friday to express his condolences, the White House said in a statement.
“During the conversation, the president commended the family’s courage and strength.”
The New York Times reported that law enforcement officials in other cities, including Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C., were bracing for the possibility of civil unrest.
Philip Sellinger, the U.S. district attorney for the District of New Jersey, said in a statement that the Justice Department had already opened a criminal civil rights investigation into the death. He echoed the calls for peaceful protest.
“We want to make clear that the U.S. Attorney’s Office respects the right of all people to assemble and protest peacefully,” said Sellinger, who last year set up a new division in New Jersey designed exclusively to enforce and protect civil rights.
“Where law enforcement officers abuse their authority by violating the constitutional rights of our citizens, it undermines all other law enforcement officers who lawfully perform their duties with dignity and respect.”
The Rodney King assault in 1991, which was captured by an amateur videographer, proved a flashpoint for tensions between police and the Black community in the U.S., one that erupted into protracted riots in Los Angeles after the officers were acquitted the following year on charges of excessive force.
It also offered a glimpse of a future in which everyone would be equipped to readily record encounters between police and the public, officers would be fitted with body-worn cameras and surveillance equipment would be mounted high above city streets, as is the case in Memphis.
It was cellphone video recorded by a group of bystanders that showed the world a group of four Minneapolis police officers restraining Floyd in May 2020, among them George Chauvin, who could be seen kneeling on the Black man’s neck for more than nine minutes.
Chauvin was convicted of murder and manslaughter charges in 2021 and sentenced to more than 22 years in prison.
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2023.
— With files from The Associated Press