Memphis police doused Tyre Nichols with pepper spray, and brutally punched and kicked him as the 29-year-old cried out for his mother, video of the fatal beating on Friday revealed.
The four videos [Warning: graphic images] the city released show the violent attack on Nichols following a traffic stop on Jan. 7. The officers who beat him have been charged with murder. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, the Justice Department, and the FBI are investigating.
Nichols died on Jan. 10 from his injuries.
In the first video, at around the minute mark, an officer is shown pulling out a gun. Another officer yells, “You’re going to get your head blown off,” and someone else shouts, “Get your ass out of the fucking car.” Nichols can be heard saying, “I didn’t do anything” as he is pulled to the ground.
Officers continue yelling at Nichols to “get on the ground,” and Nichols can be heard replying, “Ok, I am on the ground.” Nichols also asks police officers to “stop” and says, “You guys are trying to do a lot right now. I’m just trying to go home.”
As officers continue to yell and push Nichols onto the ground, Nichols breaks free and starts to run. Officers pursue Nichols on foot, where he is tackled by another Memphis Police officer a short distance away. At one point an officer says, “I hope they stomp his ass.”
In the second video released by police, a pole mounted security camera captured footage of officers struggling with Nichols on a residential street. One officer uses his baton to beat Nichols as he struggles on the sidewalk. When Nichols manages to regain his footing, several of the officers can be seen restraining him while another officer repeatedly punches Nichols. At one point, an officer kicks Nichols in the head twice.
In the third video, officers can be seen pinning Nichols to the ground, punching him in the face, and spraying him with pepper spray. Nichols can be heard crying out for his mother as police kick him and hit him with batons. Nichols is seen laying motionless and unattended on the ground in video four, while officers discuss the traffic stop.
Ahead of the video’s release, the police chief prepared the public for what they were going to see and acknowledged the need to protest while asking residents to demonstrate peacefully. In a video statement Wednesday night, Davis said she anticipated people would feel “outrage” at the “disregard of basic human rights” shown in the footage. She predicted people would take a stand against what they’d seen and urged them to demonstrate peacefully. “I expect our citizens to exercise their First Amendment right to protest to demand action and results, but we need to ensure our community is safe in this process,” she said. “None of this is a calling card for inciting violence or destruction on our community or against our citizens.”
On the morning of Jan. 8, while Nichols, a FedEx worker and avid skateboarder, was fighting for his life in the hospital, the Memphis Police Department released a statement with a sparse description of their official version of the events of the previous evening: Officers had pulled Nichols over around 8:30 pm for “reckless driving,” it said. As officers approached Nichols’ vehicle, Memphis PD claimed, a “confrontation occurred” and Nichols tried to flee on foot. Officers chased him and took him into custody after another supposed “confrontation.” He then complained of “shortness of breath,” the statement said, and he was taken “in critical condition” by an ambulance to the hospital.
In an interview Friday morning on CNN, Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, said that police had knocked on her door the evening of Jan. 7 and told her her son had been arrested for driving under the influence. It shocked her. “My son don’t drink like that,” she said. They told her they “had to pepper spray and tase him” to take him into custody and that he was being treated by a paramedic after which he would be taken to the hospital, then booked. Wells said they asked her if he’d been taking any drugs because, they claimed, he’d displayed “superhuman strength” while officers tried to handcuff him. “What they were describing was not my son, so I was very confused,” she said. When she asked if she could see him, they told her no, and would only tell her he was “nearby.” “I got nothing from them,” she said. It wasn’t until St. Francis Hospital called her at 4 a.m. and asked “Why aren’t you here?” that she said she knew where to find her son. The doctor told her on the phone that he’d suffered cardiac arrest and kidney failure. “This doesn’t sound consistent to somebody being tased or pepper sprayed,” she said. The Memphis Police department did not respond Friday afternoon to a request for comment on Wells’ description of the officers’ behavior that night.
Sitting beside Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, RowVaughn described arriving at the hospital and seeing her son. “They had beat him to a pulp,” she said. “He had bruises all over him, his head was swollen like a watermelon, his neck was busting because of the swelling. They broke his neck. My son’s nose looked like a ‘S.’ They actually just beat the crap out of him. When I saw that, I knew my son was gone.” Two days later, on Jan. 10, he succumbed to his injuries.
While Nichols’ family hopes for justice in his killings, loved ones are also remembering him for the life he lived, which included passions and hobbies beyond the headlines about his killing. One of his favorite pastimes was skateboarding, which he reportedly did from the time he was 6 years old. In a 2010 YouTube skate video of Nichols that’s spreading on social media, he looks at home on the board, landing 360 flips and smoothly linking multiple tricks together. One friend told the Memphis newspaper the Commercial Appeal, “skating gave him wings.”
Nichols was also a self-described aspiring photographer. On a website he set up to showcase his landscape photos, he said, “photography helps me look at the world in a more creative way.” The portfolio he posted includes pictures of Memphis-area landmarks, both historic and mundane: an Elvis statue, Beale Street, the FedExForum arena downtown. His mother told CNN he loved photographing sunsets. “I hope to one day let people see what I see and to hopefully admire my work based on the quality and ideals of my work,” he wrote on the site. “So on that note enjoy my page and let me know what you think.” He signed off, “Your friend, Tyre D. Nichols.”
On Monday, Nichols’ family privately watched the police body camera footage of the fatal traffic stop on the night of Jan. Through their lawyers, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, the family said officers had treated Nichols like “a human piñata.” Romanucci told reporters, “It was an unadulterated, unabashed, non-stop beating of this young boy for three minutes.”
The family attended a candlelight vigil held Thursday night at a local skatepark, where activists spoke out against police violence in Memphis. “People are literally violently murdered in the city of Memphis,” said one activist, according to reporting by news channel WREG. “And the city answers back by adding more police officers. By adding more task force units. Not this time, we’re not going to take it no more.” Nichols’ mother reportedly asked protesters to keep the demonstrations nonviolent. “I want each and every one of you to protest in peace,” she said. “I don’t want us burning up our cities, tearing up our streets, because that’s now what my son stood for.”
FBI Director Christopher Wray told reporters Friday he had also seen the video and was “appalled” by it. He promised a thorough investigation into the incident, while also urging the public to remain peaceful. “I would just add my voice to the Attorney General’s and to the families, to whom my heart goes out, that there’s a right way and a wrong way in this country to express being upset or angry about something, and we need to make sure that if there is that sentiment expressed here, it’s done in the right way.”
Speaking at a Thursday press conference, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation David Rausch said the beating “shouldn’t have happened.” He said that he was sickened by the body camera footage, which he, too, described as “appalling.”
On Friday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre extended condolences to Nichols’ family and the city of Memphis on behalf of President Biden. “We all must recommit ourselves to the critical work that must be done to advance meaningful reforms,” she said, adding that Biden believes that “in order to deliver real change, we must have accountability when law enforcement officers violate their rights.”
Last week, after an internal investigation by the Memphis PD had found the officers had been “directly responsible” for Nichols’ injuries, they fired them. Thursday afternoon, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, and official misconduct and oppression. At a news conference announcing the charges, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said the investigation is still ongoing. All of the officers are out on bail, according to Shelby County jail’s online inmate search.
At a press conference on Thursday, according to reporting by the New York Times, attorney William Massey, who is representing Martin, said, “No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die.” At the same event, Blake Ballin, who represents Mills, expressed concern that the release of the video could bias a jury pool against his client. “I would just caution the public to reserve judgement,” he said, . “Know that there’s always more to the story.” Both said Thursday they had not seen the video and that their clients would plead not guilty.
The family’s lawyers said Thursday in a statement the indictments gave them hope for justice. “This tragedy meets the absolute definition of a needless and unnecessary death,” they said. “Tyre’s loved ones’ lives were forever changed when he was beaten to death, and we will keep saying his name until justice is served.”