Fallout from the brutal Memphis police beating of Tyre Nichols continued Saturday, as the department shut down the specialized unit that had included the officers charged with second-degree murder in his death while a broadening web of investigations scrutinized additional local authorities.
Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was stopped while driving in early January by police officers with that unit.
Video footage released Friday evening captured what happened after, showing officers pummeling an unarmed Nichols, who cried out for his mother during the beating. In the aftermath, the videos show, officers conversed among themselves while a bloodied Nichols was left propped against a car, waiting minute after agonizing minute for an ambulance to arrive. It didn’t come until 22 minutes after the police said Nichols was in custody.
Nichols died three days after the beating. Five officers involved, all of them Black, were fired from the Memphis police and charged with second-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping and other counts.
But while the video recordings — captured by police body cameras and a security camera on a nearby utility pole — provided an extended look at the beating and its aftermath, they also left key moments undocumented and raised other questions. The footage does not capture the actual police stop, for instance. But it does depict officers claiming that Nichols grabbed for their guns — something not seen on any videos released Friday.
The video footage was widely condemned on Friday and Saturday, with a procession of politicians, law enforcement officials and other prominent figures and groups all excoriating what they saw captured on camera. With Nichols’s death, Memphis is the latest city facing nationwide scrutiny over law enforcement actions and behavior, joining Minneapolis, Chicago, Baltimore, Cleveland, Atlanta and Ferguson, Mo.
Before the footage was released, local officials in Memphis repeatedly described it as horrifying. The videos released Friday only magnified a wave of criticism and outrage in Memphis and across the country. Demonstrators marched in Memphis on Friday, calling Nichols’s death a murder, and other protests were held from Los Angeles to New York.
On Saturday, demonstrations continued in Memphis, New York and Raleigh, N.C. In Memphis, about 200 people marched peacefully on Saturday afternoon around the city police headquarters and the Shelby County Government Center. The group stopped at intersections frequently to make demands of authorities, including calling for the Scorpion unit to be shut down.
Nakia Harris led the march for part of the way, along with her three sons, who are ages 5, 8 and 11.
“I have three boys, and it is hurtful as a mother seeing that video,” said Harris, a 30-year-old Black woman. Harris said she does not want her children to fear for their lives when they see the police. “I want them to not be afraid when they see blue lights, or want to run,” she said.
Condemnation of the police actions in the Nichols case also poured in from law enforcement officials, including Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis police chief, who said her former officers lacked “basic humanity.”
Her comments were echoed Friday evening by other policing leaders, including in places where officers have been criticized and prosecuted for their own use of force. Keechant Sewell, the New York City police commissioner, denounced what she called “disgraceful actions,” while David O. Brown, the Chicago police superintendent, called the video “horrific.”
Nichols’s family has praised the official response recently, with Rodney Wells, his stepfather, saying Friday they were “very satisfied with the process, with the police chief, with the D.A.” Earlier, attorneys for the family called for the Scorpion unit to be scrapped, something the police chief initially pushed back on.
The unit — whose name came from an acronym for Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — consisted of 40 officers. It was created in 2021, the same year Davis took over the department and the city was struggling with a record-setting number of homicides.
It was billed as combating violent crime, and Mayor Jim Strickland last year touted the group, highlighting that it made hundreds of arrests and seized hundreds of weapons in its initial months. At first, Davis merely suspended the unit’s activities, asking for outside reviews of each specialized unit within the Memphis police, while she also defended it.
“These teams have worked really hard, and they’re under a cloud now,” Davis said in an interview on Friday. “People want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
On Saturday afternoon, though, the Memphis police abruptly reversed course, announcing that Davis had met with the unit and it was being shuttered.
“In the process of listening intently to the family of Tyre Nichols, community leaders, and the uninvolved officers who have done quality work in their assignments, it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION Unit,” the department said in a statement.
Police officers still with the unit “unreservedly agree with this next step,” the department said. In the Nichols case, “the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor” on the Scorpion group’s name, the department said.
Before the video footage of Nichols’s beating was released, Davis acknowledged that it did not capture the initial traffic stop. Davis said Friday that the officers claimed Nichols “was driving on the wrong side of the road but we have not been able to prove that.”
The officer who stopped Nichols was driving a new, unmarked police car not equipped with dashboard cameras, Davis said.
In the videos, officers are seen standing around discussing what they said happened at some length. At one point, officers allege that Nichols appeared to be drugged and reached for their guns, and they also said he tried to strike an officer. Nichols, one officer said, “took a swing.” None of this was in any videos released on Friday night.
A lawyer for Desmond Mills Jr., one of the officers charged in the case, said in a statement Saturday that the videos “produced as many questions as they have answers.”
The questions that remain include “what Desmond knew and what he was able to see when he arrived late to the scene” and “what Desmond knew and what he was able to see after he was pepper sprayed,” said Blake Ballin, the attorney. (In the videos released Friday, an officer suggested he got pepper spray in his eye.)
And another question, Ballin added, was “whether Desmond’s actions crossed the lines that were crossed by other officers during this incident.”
The videos also spurred new outrage after they showed the 22 minutes it took for an ambulance and stretcher to arrive for Nichols once officers declared that he was in custody. And the footage shed new light on the actions of the officers involved.
Videos captured an officer opening Nichols’s car door and pulling him out of the vehicle. Nichols is heard saying, “I didn’t do anything.” A minute later, the footage shows Nichols being pushed to the ground. He then struggles to his feet and flees.
Several minutes later, footage captured officers appearing to catch up to Nichols, pinning him to the ground and hitting him. He is heard screaming out “Mom!” several times. Officers are filmed repeatedly kicking, beating and using a baton to strike Nichols; he is hit in the head at least five times.
Nichols is then propped against a car, bloodied and handcuffed. Two medics arrive not long after, examining Nichols, who appears to be groaning and unable to sit up. Later, an ambulance is seen arriving.
The incident has sparked a growing number of investigations.
After Nichols’s death, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation quickly launched an inquiry, which led to the officers being charged. That investigation, the agency said, continues. A spokeswoman declined to comment Saturday on the inquiry, citing the ongoing investigation and referring to the agency’s previously-issued statement on the case. The U.S. attorney for the Western District of Tennessee also announced a federal civil rights probe.
Davis, the Memphis police chief, also suggested that there could be additional fallout within the Memphis department. Before the video was released, she said the five officers were “directly responsible for the physical abuse.” But an unspecified number of other officers also were also being investigated for “department policy violations,” she said.
The scale of scrutiny on the case has increased beyond the Memphis police. The Memphis Fire Department said that it, too, was conducting an internal investigation and aiming to finish it next week. The department said in a statement Friday that it “did not receive full access to the video footage until today” and added that it was reviewing the recordings.
Before the footage was released, the fire department had said two of its personnel “involved in the initial patient care of Tyre Nichols” were removed from duty during the internal investigation.
At least one other law enforcement agency was also examining its own role in the incident. Memphis is part of Shelby County, Tenn., and the sheriff there said late Friday that he saw the video that evening and had “concerns about two deputies who appeared on the scene following the physical confrontation between police and Tyre Nichols.”
The sheriff, Floyd Bonner Jr., said in a statement that he had launched an administrative investigation into their conduct, and both deputies were relieved of duty while it was underway.
Tim Craig, Robert Klemko, Justine McDaniel, Joyce Sohyun Lee, Elyse Samuels, Dalton Bennett, Ellen Francis, David Nakamura and Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff 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.