MEMPHIS — In a beating caught on police surveillance and body cameras, Memphis police officers shocked, pepper-sprayed, kicked, punched and swung a baton at an unarmed, 29-year-old Black man as he screamed repeatedly for his mother, who sat unaware in her home less than 100 yards away.
“To find out that my son was calling my name, and I was only feet away, and didn’t even hear him — you have no clue how I feel right now,” Nichols’s mother, RowVaughn Wells, said Friday. “My son loved me to death, and I loved him to death.”
Scattered protests across the country were largely peaceful after Nichols’s family, as well as law enforcement officers, urged nonviolence.
One of the videos released Friday is a 30-minute clip taken from a security camera on a pole. It captures, in eerie silence, Memphis police delivering at least two kicks, two baton strikes and five punches to Nichols’s face.
Two officers are seen struggling with Nichols, who is lying on the pavement, as they appear to be trying to handcuff him. A third officer aims a kick at Nichols’s head.
Officers can be heard yelling, “Give us your hands!” Moments later, a fourth officer arrives and strikes Nichols in the back with a police baton. The officer strikes him a second time, then the same officer who earlier kicked him circles around and punches him in the face. That officer then punches him four more times, as the first two officers restrain Nichols’s arms. Nichols then falls back to the pavement, where officers handcuff him.
The video released by the city revealed it took 22 minutes for an ambulance and a stretcher to arrive for Nichols after officers announced he was in custody. Nichols was eventually taken to St. Francis Hospital, about six miles away, or a 15-minute drive, from where he was detained.
Memphis officials, as well as law enforcement agencies across the country, have uniformly expressed disgust at the officers’ actions. Attorneys for the Nichols family compared it to the 1991 Rodney King beating at the hands of Los Angeles Police Department officers.
President Biden issued a statement late Friday describing the killing as “yet another painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day.”
The video does not show Nichols driving. As it begins, Nichols is pulled from his car and pushed to the ground by a group of officers.
“I didn’t do anything!” Nichols says as officers shout at him using expletives. Nichols appears calm and is sitting on the ground, while officers shout commands at him: “Turn around! Right now! Get on the ground!”
“Okay, you guys are really doing a lot right now, stop,” Nichols says as multiple officers pin him to the ground. “I’m just trying to go home!”
Officers deploy pepper spray and Tasers, but Nichols escapes and officers give chase. After he is caught and beaten for three minutes, the officers dragged Nichols, who had been lying on the ground, over to a car. At least seven officers at the scene were walking in circles, one clip showed, patting each other on the back and putting hands on their knees, appearing out of breath. One officer limped around the car against which Nichols was resting and fist-bumped another cop.
Soon, Nichols toppled over to the ground.
“Hey, sit up, bro,” the officer wearing the body camera appears to say.
The officer approaches Nichols and appears to lift him up. The light captures Nichols’s face, with blood around his mouth. It is unclear if he is conscious.
Several police officers remained at the scene of the initial stop, one clip showed, hearing over the radio that Nichols had been found.
“I hope they stomp his a--,” one officer says.
“What?” another says. “I hope they stomp his a--,” the first officer repeats.
Nichols’s mother and his stepfather, Rodney Wells, watched the video on Monday, along with several close relatives and five lawyers for the family, in a downtown Memphis law firm’s conference room.
RowVaughn Wells said she watched for less than a minute before hearing her son’s voice and leaving the room.
“I have to stay strong, but it’s very difficult,” she told The Washington Post. “And then when I walked in that room and I sat there and I heard my son’s voice — because that’s going to be the last time that I hear my son’s voice — that just did something to me. And I just had to get out.”
Representatives for Nichols said the footage they watched lasted an hour, with multiple video angles showing different perspectives of the interaction, like the footage released Friday night.
“We were expecting something not good, because we usually don’t get a chance to see video this quickly,” said Antonio Romanucci, an attorney for the family. “The expectation level was met, if not exceeded. There’s a good three minutes of unabated beating. Just beating. I’ve seen a lot, but this was shocking.”
As the family screened the footage, Rodney Wells cried out in anguish.
“Why?” he repeated. “What did he do?”
“It turned into a pack mentality,” Romanucci said, referring to the Memphis police officers. “And certainly when they packed together, they reacted together and they felt protected by each other. It’s sad to see these five play off each other. They all take shots.”
Before watching the footage Monday morning, the family met with Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis. Rodney Wells said Davis explained she was proud of her department and the work its officers do for the city of Memphis, “but I’m not proud of what you’re about to see,” she told them.
In an interview Friday, Davis told The Post why she moved quickly to fire the officers involved in Nichols’s arrest. In the months after George Floyd’s 2020 murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, Davis became a prominent advocate for police reform.
“We always say we want our communities to trust us. They will never trust us if we don’t treat officers like we treat citizens when they commit egregious acts,” she said. “So I thought it was important to not be a hypocrite about it. And these families deserve swift justice.”
In past cases of alleged police brutality in Memphis, officers have been able to review evidence in the case before speaking with investigators, said Davis, who was named to lead the department in 2021. This time, the chief withheld all evidence from the officers, she said.
“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.
Tamika Smith, 35, came to Martyr Park in Memphis on Friday evening to demand justice for Nichols, but she was still unsure about what exactly that justice should look like.
“I don’t know because they did it so quick,” Smith said, referring to the second-degree murder charges filed against the five officers.
A similar sentiment rippled through the meager crowd gathered around 5:30 p.m. at the park, located near downtown Memphis. Media outnumbered demonstrators. Activists took turns addressing cameras through a bullhorn, expressing anger about Nichols’s death but also celebrating the work of the community that they said contributed to the swift indictment of the officers.
Later, protesters marched down Interstate 55 with bull horns and signs demanding an end to “police terror” and “Justice for Tyre.” A toddler listened from his dad’s shoulders as protesters chanted: “Please don’t shoot me, I’ve got my hands above my head.”
Few people, if anyone, in the crowd appeared to have watched the video footage. Multiple people said they planned to watch it at home or not at all.
“I don’t have to watch the video to know what happened to him,” said Amber Sherman, a member of the Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter. “I can see the picture of him in the hospital and know he was brutally murdered.”
Some protesters called for the Memphis police to disband the Scorpion unit, to which the fired officers belonged. The unit was created in late 2021 with the goal of saturating high-crime neighborhoods with police presence. Numerous jurisdictions across the country field units with similar mandates. Scorpion stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.
Though the Nichols family has praised the police chief’s response, lawyers for the family have begun to lay the rhetorical groundwork for civil action on Nichols’s behalf, urging Memphians who had complaints against the unit to reach out to them.
“This unit has engaged in excessive use of force against Black citizens before,” said Ben Crump, who represents the family. “Citizens have reached out to us and the family about this happening to them. We believe that this was a pattern and practice and that Tyre is dead because this pattern and practice went unchecked.”
In the interview, police chief Davis defended the Scorpion program. The police chief said that she has suspended the unit’s activity, and has invited the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Justice Department to examine the practices of all of the department’s specialized units.
But, she said, she believes the Scorpion unit has been largely effective at reducing violent crime across the city. “We didn’t want people to think we were an occupying force in the community,” Davis said. “The intent was to increase visibility, give these communities some sense of a break from all of the gun violence we were experiencing. We had great success.
“They did good work. But this group, we believe, went off the rails that night.”
Klemko and Lee reported from Washington. Tim Craig contributed to this report from Memphis. Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Mark Berman and David Nakamura contributed to this report from Washington.
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.