The message from those who had seen the video of Memphis police officers beating a 29-year-old Black man was both clear and chilling: It would be heartbreaking to watch what happened to Tyre Nichols.
A day after footage of Nichols’s beating was released, experts say the Memphis case highlights a recent national history of grief, frustration and evolving attitudes about law enforcement accountability.
“We are watching these videos over and over again, and talking with people about them,” Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies police body cameras, told The Washington Post. “Part of the reason why videos like the Tyre Nichols video get such a broad and powerful reaction is that we’re paying attention in a way that we weren’t years ago.”
High-profile cases in recent years — Michael Brown, George Floyd, Adam Toledo, Andrew Brown Jr. and Jayland Walker, among others — have brought backlash for police departments that do not immediately release footage, that adjust their accounts of the incidents after the footage is public or that do both. In Memphis, police initially noted how Nichols “complained of having a shortness of breath” after he was apprehended, not mentioning the beating the man took from officers.
“What is striking about this tragedy in Memphis is you’re not seeing the initial rush to defend and deflect,” said Mary D. Fan, a criminal law professor at the University of Washington and a former federal prosecutor. “It’s a confluence of the brutality that we see in that video and the moment that we’re in right now. We’re in a different time in terms of the responses to these videos.”
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis announced the murder charges against the officers, all of whom are Black, and denounced their actions days before the footage was released.
Protests that followed the videos’ release have been mostly peaceful.
The landscape after Nichols’s death is different from the period that prompted the push toward body cameras in law enforcement, experts told The Post. When former Ferguson, Mo., officer Darren Wilson was not indicted by a grand jury in 2014, calls for more police accountability intensified. Shortly afterward, the Obama administration announced $263 million in federal funding for police training and body cameras, including $75 million allocated for 50,000 cameras for officers across the country.
“This is not a problem just of Ferguson, Missouri,” President Barack Obama said at the time. “This is a national problem.”
Despite the presence of body cameras, fatal police shootings have continued in the United States. There have been 8,166 fatal police shootings since 2015, according to an ongoing analysis by The Post. More than 1,110 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year, data shows. And Black Americans continue to be killed at a much higher rate than White Americans.
In the more than eight years since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson — and the protests that followed — the release of body-camera footage has been a point of contention between law enforcement and the public during some of the most high-profile cases of deadly force.
Nearly three months after Floyd, 46, was murdered by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, body-camera footage from two of the four officers charged in his death was released to the public in August 2020. The footage, which showed Chauvin placing his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, was released by a court order. The Minneapolis Police Department had previously declined to release the body-cam footage from the officers because of the investigation, which fueled the nationwide racial justice protests that dominated the summer of 2020.
Other police killings captured on video sparked backlash from communities questioning law enforcement and their response. In April 2021, more than two weeks after a Chicago police officer shot and killed Toledo, a 13-year-old Latino boy, a police oversight agency released the graphic footage. That month, a North Carolina judge ruled that body-camera footage of police fatally shooting Andrew Brown, a 42-year-old Black man in Elizabeth City, N.C., would not be released to the public but would be disclosed to his family, despite outcry and protests.
In June 2022, police in Akron, Ohio, fired at Walker, a 25-year-old Black man, dozens of times as he fled officers who had tried to pull him over. A week later, authorities released body-cam footage of the shooting. Protesters, outraged by what they had watched, marched in the streets and broke windows. Dozens were arrested, and the mayor declared a state of emergency.
Fan told The Post that the drumbeat of prominent national cases has made it difficult to pinpoint when the release of footage became national talking points that often lead network and cable news channels.
It took 20 days after the officers beat Nichols for the city of Memphis to release the footage. Most of the time, police departments do not announce that they will release body-camera videos in which officers may have used excessive force. On Thursday, a day before the Nichols video was released, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told reporters at a news conference that video of the incident would be released “sometime after 6 p.m. Friday.”
Lauri Stevens, a D.C.-based communications consultant for law enforcement, told The Post that outside pressure may have helped to calm frustrated community members.
“In the case of Tyre Nichols, there was tremendous pressure all over the country and beyond our borders to know what happened in that situation,” Stevens said. “The only thing I can think of is that they were just trying to let people know, ‘We are going to do it. Be patient.’”
She added that the announcement created a wave of anticipation among the public.
“Not since George Floyd had we had an incident that reverberated on policing and police actions in a situation like this,” Stevens said.
When body cameras first appeared about 10 years ago, police departments had internal debates about their potential effects on officers and investigations, Stevens told The Post.
“The debate was, ‘Is it going to help us? Or is it going to hurt us?’” Stevens said. “Individual officers were worried about their privacy being hindered, and police departments worried about evidence being released unnecessarily that would harm the case.”
In the case of Floyd, footage was passed around the internet, ultimately leading four officers to be convicted in his murder, the violation of his civil rights or both.
On Saturday, Eugene O’Donnell, a lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former officer with the New York Police Department, echoed Stevens, saying some instances on video clearly show how officers are using more force than is needed.
“This era of hands-on policing needs to be ended,” he said.
The Nichols case also showed a different perspective of the “blue code,” even before the video was released.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many other law enforcement agencies publicly being very critical and denouncing what happened in Memphis,” Stevens said. “A lot of the time, [officers] say, ‘We don’t know the whole context.’”
In Memphis on Friday, the police chief called Nichols’s death “horrific” and pledged transparency during what she said was “our defining moment.”
“This is not just a professional failing,” Davis said in a video statement this week. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.”
She told The Post on Friday that the video of that Jan. 7 beating was an integral piece of evidence as she seeks accountability for her staff.
“If officers were allowed to view video footage, then they would have fashioned their statements based on the video footage as opposed to their real recollection of what actually occurred,” she said.
Holly Bailey and Mark Berman contributed to this report.
The death of Tyre Nichols
The latest: The Justice Department is launching a review of the Memphis Police Department’s use of force policies and practices. Each of the five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty in Tyre Nichols’ death. One of the officers texted a photo of bloodied Tyre to colleagues, according to records.
What has Memphis police footage revealed?: The race of the five officers charged in the Nichols killing has sparked a complex dialogue on institutional racism in policing. Some of the most haunting videos came from SkyCop cameras.
Who was Tyre Nichols?: The 29-year-old father was pepper-sprayed, punched and kicked by Memphis cops after a January traffic stop. He was pronounced dead at a hospital three days after his arrest. At Tyre Nichols’ funeral service, his family said they are focused on getting justice.
What is the Scorpion unit?: After the fallout from the brutal beating, Memphis police shut down the Scorpion unit.