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‘Shortness of breath’: How police first described what happened to Tyre Nichols

Police officers look at Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was pulled over while driving and died three days later, after being beaten by Memphis Police Department officers on Jan. 7. (Memphis Police Department/Reuters)
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The first time Memphis police described what happened between their officers and Tyre Nichols — the 29-year-old who died of his injuries after being beaten by police — they wrote that “a confrontation occurred” following a traffic stop. Nichols fled on foot, and then “another confrontation occurred.”

“Afterward, the suspect complained of having a shortness of breath,” reads the statement posted on the Memphis Police Department’s Twitter account the morning after Nichols was beaten on Jan. 7. “The suspect was transported to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition.”

Brutal video footage released Friday, an hour’s worth of clips from body-worn and mounted cameras showing police pepper-spraying, punching and kicking Nichols, underscores the disparity between what police first reported and what actually happened.

Across the country, police sometimes use passive language that can paint a very different picture from what cameras later show. Initial news releases are often based on police officers’ self-reporting, and were it not for the ubiquity of cameras in modern times, the discrepancies between those filings and the reality of a police interaction may never come to light.

“If you read that report, you would not think that Tyre is dead because of excessive force. It’s written in a way to be positive toward those law enforcement agents,” Van Turner, the president of the Memphis NAACP, said of the initial news release. “The report is disingenuous. It’s fabricated.”

Police body-camera video shows Tyre Nichols can barely sit up after being beaten and Tased by officers. (Video: Memphis Police Dept.)

Rather than simply complaining of shortness of breath, Nichols, the video showed, could barely sit up after the beating. Officers propped him up against a police car, where he repeatedly slumped over. He can be heard groaning but is not heard forming any words. He twists and writhes against the police car, at times falling over on his side, as he waits 22 minutes for an ambulance.

Nichols died three days later. His case sparked national outrage and investigations by the FBI and Justice Department.

It echoes other cases, including that of George Floyd, in which initial police reports painted a sanitized picture of a violent or fatal interaction. At the same time, the police investigation that came after that first Memphis report moved so swiftly that experts have pointed to it as an unusually capable response to officer brutality.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis herself questioned that first report, later telling CNN she received an incident report at 4 a.m., hours after the beatings, thought it was a “strange summary of what occurred on a traffic stop,” and went to the office to investigate.

The Memphis Police Department did not respond to questions from The Washington Post on Saturday.

“In this particular case, it seems very different from very active coverups that I’ve seen in other instances,” said Rajiv Sethi, a professor at Barnard College who studies police use of lethal force. “The initial statement was very quickly reversed.”

Still, the first narrative often sticks, said Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project. The initial framing of an inaccurate narrative by police is a tactic often seen after brutality by officers, she said; though parts of Memphis’s response were fast and transparent, she said she would not look to it “as a model.”

“Even though we’ve seen the videos now, if you’re going through [a certain] segment of Twitter, you’re still seeing some people saying this and this were true or he shouldn’t have ran,” Bonds said. “There’s things that came out of that initial presentation of the facts that are going to stick with people.”

Before body cameras became widespread, the police’s word was often unchallenged by the media or otherwise, said Dan Kennedy, a longtime media observer and journalism professor at Northeastern University.

While videos can show what police do not write in incident reports, experts also say officers could be starting to use body cameras to influence narratives. Some believed they saw that in the Nichols videos.

In the first altercation shown in the videos, multiple officers shout at Nichols to lie down, though he is already pinned to the ground from shoulders to feet. “I am,” he shouts back, desperate. During the second video, officers tell Nichols to give them his hands when an officer is already holding him by the wrist; then the body camera points away. Officers also say on film that Nichols reached for their guns and is high, neither of which the videos show, though their first traffic stop was not included in the videos because it wasn’t filmed.

Officer tells Nichols to give them his hands when an officer is already holding him by the wrist. (Video: Memphis Police Dept.)

“It appeared to me that one or more officers were providing a false narrative to accompany the video recording in real time. They were saying things like, ‘Give me your hands’ when they already had his hands,” said Philip M. Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who researches police crime.

Turner, of the Memphis NAACP, also said he interpreted what the officers said in the videos as an attempt to cover up what had happened moments before.

“You’re seeing this more and more. They’re almost acting like the cameras didn’t catch what happens,” Turner said. “For this guy to say Tyre reached for his gun, but we didn’t see that, it is dumbfounding.”

However, Sethi said police officers take into account the fact that they’re being recorded, but in this case, they may not have been thinking of the Nichols interaction as anything out of the ordinary and thus would not have been speaking for the camera’s benefit.

“I don’t think those officers expected,” he said, “that Nichols would not survive.”

In other cases, incident reports often obscured abuses. Floyd “appeared to be suffering medical distress,” read the Minneapolis police statement about his death. Louisville police listed Breonna Taylor’s injuries as “none,” though six shots struck her, including one bullet near her heart, an autopsy later showed. During an “altercation” in Grand Rapids, Mich., “the officer fired his weapon” at Patrick Lyoya, “striking the individual who died as a result of his injuries.” But it did not report the details: an officer tackling Lyoya to the ground and later firing a single round into the back of his head, according to video that was later released.

Police statements are often written by public information officers using reports written by the officers involved in the incident, Stinson said.

In the case of Floyd, the public information officer who wrote the report had not seen the video of Derek Chauvin’s knee choking Floyd beforehand. And in Nichols’s case, the first public statement came early the following morning, just hours after the police chief had been notified of the incident at 4 a.m.

Though this case joins that list, authorities’ later response was “commendable,” Turner said. After investigations, five officers were fired and then charged with second-degree murder before the video footage was released, three weeks after the incident.

“I’d rather have the police being transparent, not prolonging the investigation and bracing the public for a brutal video,” Turner said, comparing the response with that in other police killings, “than what’s happened in the past.”

Protesters across the U.S. marched to call for justice and police reform on Jan. 27, after Memphis police released the video of the beating of Tyre Nichols. (Video: The Washington Post)

The death of Tyre Nichols

The latest: An official autopsy report shows Tyre Nichols died from “blunt force trauma,” lawyers say. The Nichols’s family is suing the city of Memphis and police officers over the brutal beating. The Justice Department will review the Memphis Police Department’s use-of-force policies and practices.

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. Each of the five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty in Nichols’s death.