What We Know About Tyre Nichols’s Lethal Encounter With Memphis Police
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What We Know About Tyre Nichols’s Lethal Encounter With Memphis Police

Jul 14, 2023


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The union representing Fire Department employees said that the E.M.T.s who responded and were fired did not have sufficient information when they were dispatched.

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By Rick Rojas, Neelam Bohra and Eliza Fawcett

Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was beaten by Memphis police officers for roughly three minutes on the evening of Jan. 7, after he was stopped for what the police initially said was reckless driving. The stop escalated into a violent confrontation that ended with Mr. Nichols hospitalized in critical condition. Three days later, he died.

Five police officers, all of whom are also Black, have been fired and were charged on Jan. 26 with various felonies, including second-degree murder. A sixth officer was fired on Feb. 3 and another has been suspended. Also, two sheriff's deputies have been taken off duty, and three Fire Department employees have been fired.

Two of the three Fire Department employees have also had licenses temporarily suspended by the Tennessee Emergency Medical Services Board. But in a letter to the City Council on Friday, the president of the union that represents the Fire Department said that the E.M.T.s who responded did not have sufficient information when they were dispatched.

Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis announced that the U.S. Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police would conduct an independent external review of the Memphis Police Department's special units and use of force policies.

On Jan. 27, the city of Memphis released footage that shows officers punching, kicking and using a baton to beat Mr. Nichols as he begs them to stop.

The footage, which amounts to almost an hour and which was compiled from police body cameras and a street camera, shows parts of the traffic stop, Mr. Nichols running away, the police pursuit and, ultimately, officers beating him. The Memphis police, in an initial statement, said that a "confrontation occurred" as officers stopped Mr. Nichols's vehicle, and he fled. There was then "another confrontation" as officers arrested him, the statement said.

An independent autopsy found that Mr. Nichols "suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating," according to preliminary findings released by his family's lawyers.

On Jan. 23, Antonio Romanucci, a lawyer for the Nichols family, stood with Mr. Nichols's mother, RowVaughn Wells, and said: "He was a human piñata for those police officers. Not only was it violent, it was savage."

President Biden watched the entirety of the footage after its release and said in a statement that the episode was "yet another painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion that Black and brown Americans experience every single day." In his State of the Union address on Feb. 7, he acknowledged the tragedy again and called for more police accountability.

Mr. Nichols's funeral was held Feb. 1 at the Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in Memphis. The Rev. Al Sharpton delivered the eulogy, and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke, telling Mr. Nichols's family, "The people of our country mourn with you."

Five officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — have been charged with multiple felonies. They include second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.

The charge of second-degree murder alone could be punishable by up to 60 years in prison and fines of up to $50,000, even if a defendant did not strike a blow that, by itself, would have been fatal.

The charges followed an internal investigation by the Memphis Police Department that found the officers used excessive force and failed to intervene or provide help. On Jan. 20, the department announced that those five officers had been fired. The officers had all joined the department between 2017 and 2020.

The department also confirmed that a sixth officer, Preston Hemphill, who shot his Taser at Mr. Nichols as he ran away from the police, had been fired. Some of the footage released by the city came from Mr. Hemphill's body camera, his lawyer, Lee Gerald, said.

"He was never present at the second scene," where officers caught up with Mr. Nichols after a brief foot chase and beat him severely, Mr. Gerald said of Mr. Hemphill, according to a statement that the Police Department released.

A seventh police officer was also suspended, the Police Department said, but no other details have been released. Two sheriff's deputies were also relieved of duty pending an investigation, Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. of Shelby County said the day the footage was released.

On Feb. 7, the state released documents from the Police Department that revealed one of the officers, Mr. Haley, took a picture of Mr. Nichols after the beating as he was propped up against one of the police cars and sent it to at least five people, including an acquaintance outside of the department.

That violated policies about keeping information confidential, according to the documents. But police officials said it was also part of a pattern of mocking, abusive and "blatantly unprofessional" behavior by the officers that also included shouting profanities at Mr. Nichols, laughing after the beating and "bragging" about their involvement.

The footage and other police documents show at least some of the officers knew they had operating body cameras. Two additional police officers arrived during the final blows, and a supervising lieutenant appeared six minutes later in the video as Mr. Nichols lay on the street.

The entire incident was "heinous, reckless and inhumane," said Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis police chief, said in a video statement on Jan. 25, the day before five officers were charged with murder. "I expect you to feel outrage in the disregard of basic human rights, as our police officers have taken an oath to do the opposite of what transpired on the video."

Mr. Nichols's relatives had pushed for the officers to be charged with first-degree murder but were nonetheless encouraged by the charges that were brought.

"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," Ben Crump, one of the lawyers for Mr. Nichols's family, said in a statement. He added, "This tragedy meets the absolute definition of a needless and unnecessary death."

On Jan. 30, the Memphis Fire Department fired two E.M.T.s, Robert Long and JaMichael Sandridge, as well as a lieutenant, Michelle Whitaker, who responded to the scene of Mr. Nichols's beating. The Memphis fire chief, Gina Sweat, said that Ms. Whitaker never got out of the fire truck at the scene.

Later that week, the Tennessee Emergency Medical Services Board voted unanimously to temporarily suspend the licenses of Mr. Long and Mr. Sandridge, who could be seen on video standing around while Mr. Nichols writhed in pain on the ground. They did not treat Mr. Nichols for 19 minutes after arriving on the scene, the regulatory agency concluded.

"They were his best shot, and they failed to help," said Dr. Sullivan Smith, a physician who is the chairman of the board.

In a letter to the Memphis City Council on Feb. 10, Thomas Malone, the president of the union that represents Fire Department employees, the Memphis Fire Fighters Association, said the emergency medical workers who responded to the scene were not given "adequate information" when they were dispatched. Mr. Malone said that once they arrived at the scene, information was withheld from them, "which caused our members to handle things differently than they should have."

"But there is no way any member could be truly prepared for a situation that occurred on Jan. 7," Mr. Malone said.

Neither the Memphis Fire Fighters Association nor the Memphis Police Department responded to requests for comment about the letter.

It was unclear whether the E.M.T.s had appealed the suspension of their licenses, but before the board could consider a full suspension, the E.M.T.s would be able to contest the findings. Neither has spoken publicly.

The images, taken from body camera and street camera footage, include the initial traffic stop. Police officers come up to Mr. Nichols's car yelling with their guns raised, open his car door and pull him out of the vehicle. Mr. Nichols says that he "didn't do anything."

He drops to the ground, on his side, as officers surround him. He appears to offer no resistance, though he struggles as the officers hold down parts of his body and threaten him. He is pepper-sprayed, and an officer fires a Taser at him as Mr. Nichols gets up and runs.

The video images show that, eight minutes later, he has been pursued into a suburban neighborhood, where, close to Mr. Nichols's own home, officers begin severely beating him. They are seen kicking Mr. Nichols in the head when he is on the ground, and pulling him back up as another officer uses an extendable baton to hit him several times.

Mr. Nichols does not appear to fight back throughout the beating, which ends with his falling to the ground. More officers arrive on the scene moments later, and Mr. Nichols is not seen receiving medical attention for several minutes.

A New York Times analysis of the footage found the officers continued escalating force throughout the encounter, whether or not he complied with their orders. The analysis counted at least 71 commands during the approximately 13-minute period, some contradictory, asking him to show his hands as the officers held them and telling him to get on the ground while he was already lying there.

The Memphis Police Department said it had disbanded a specialized police unit known as the Scorpion unit on Jan. 28. The five officers charged — as well as Mr. Hemphill, who has not been charged — were all part of the unit, and its suspension followed calls from Mr. Nichols's family and city activists to shut it down. Chief Davis created the unit a little more than a year ago to help address a surge of violence in the city, and designed it as a 40-officer group that deployed in neighborhoods. A large part of the idea came from hoping officers would write fewer tickets and instead seize cars from reckless drivers.

Members of the specialized squad repeatedly intimidated, harassed and used force against city residents who were overwhelmingly young Black men, a New York Times review found. The unit often operated in unmarked vehicles, carrying out traffic stops, seizing weapons and making hundreds of arrests.

Once the video of Mr. Nichols's death emerged, the officers assigned to the unit agreed "unreservedly" with shutting down the unit, the Police Department said in a statement.

It added that, while the "heinous actions of a few" cast a cloud of dishonor on the unit, "it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department, take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted."

As a result, court cases in Shelby County that would have relied on testimony and reports from the unit now hang in limbo.

The Shelby County district attorney's office said on Thursday that it would review any cases and convictions involving the five officers, though the office did not offer specifics because of the continuing investigation.

Some defense lawyers have begun to compile a roster of officers in the unit, work that could affect hundreds of cases across the city.

"Just because someone served in the Scorpion unit doesn't mean they did anything wrong," said Mike Working, a criminal defense lawyer and the former president of the Tennessee Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "But it's worth a second look, at minimum." Mr. Working added that cases and sentences could potentially be dropped or dismissed.

Mr. Nichols worked the second shift at a FedEx facility. The shipping company is a major employer and corporate presence in Memphis. Every evening, around 7 p.m., he would return to his mother's house, where he lived, for his "lunch" break, according to his family. He had worked at FedEx for roughly nine months.

He had a 4-year-old son. He went to the same Starbucks most mornings around 8:30 a.m., his mother said. He often went to Shelby Farms, a sprawling public park just outside Memphis. He photographed sunsets and skateboarded, a passion since he was 6 — one his stepfather thought he had grown too old for. "You’ve got to put that skateboard down," Mr. Wells remembered telling Mr. Nichols not long before he died. "You’ve got a full-time job now."

His mother said that Mr. Nichols had tattooed her name on his arm. "That made me proud," she said. "Most kids don't put their mom's name. My son was a beautiful soul."

Mr. Nichols told the officers during the Jan. 7 confrontation that he just wanted to go home, and, as he was being beaten, he called out for his mother. Her home was about 100 yards away.

Jessica Jaglois, Laura Faith Kebede, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Jesus Jiménez contributed reporting.

Rick Rojas is a national correspondent covering the American South. He has been a staff reporter for The Times since 2014. @RaR

Neelam Bohra is the 2022-2023 disability reporting fellow for the National desk. @neelambohratx

Eliza Fawcett is a reporter for the National desk and a member of the 2022-2023 New York Times fellowship class. @ElizaFawcett


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