The Memphis police video leaves many questions unanswered

MEMPHIS, Tennessee. — The nation and city of Memphis struggled to navigate Saturday with video showing police beating up Tire Nichols — footage that left many unanswered questions about the black motorist’s traffic stop and about other law enforcement officers who stood by when he lay motionless on the sidewalk.

The five disgraced Memphis Police Department officers, who are also black, were released three days after their arrest and charged with second-degree murder and other crimes in Nichols’ death. The video released on Friday renewed questions about how fatal encounters with law enforcement persist even after repeated calls for change.

A Memphis Police Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the role of other officers who showed up at the scene.

Memphis Police Commissioner Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said other officers are under investigation, and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said two deputies were discharged from duty without pay while their behavior is investigated.

Cities across the country had braced themselves for demonstrations, but the protests were dispersed and non-violent. In Memphis, several dozen protesters blocked the Interstate 55 bridge, which carries traffic across the Mississippi River to Arkansas. Tractor units were backed up for a stretch.

Demonstrators temporarily blocked traffic while chanting slogans and marching through the streets of New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. In Washington, protesters gathered across from the White House and near the Black Lives Matter Plaza.

Memphis remained nervous. Before the protests, some downtown Memphis businesses boarded up windows and the school system canceled after-school activities. Memphis-Shelby County schools, which have about 100,000 students, postponed athletics and after-school activities Saturday.

Christopher Taylor was among the protesters at the Interstate 55 bridge. The Memphis native said officers appeared to be laughing as they stood around after the beating.

“I cried,” he said. “And that right there, since I’m not only a father but also a son, my mother is still alive, that could have been me.”

Blake Ballin, attorney for fired officer Desmond Mills, said in a statement to The Associated Press on Saturday that the videos “have raised as many questions as they have answers.” The question of whether the city will remain peaceful has been “answered,” he said.

Some of the other questions will focus on what Mills “knew and could see when he arrived late at the scene” and whether his actions “crossed the lines that other officers crossed during this incident,” Ballin said.

The arrest was made by the so-called Scorpion unit, which consists of three teams of about 30 street officers who target violent offenders in high-crime areas, Davis said.

In an AP interview on Friday, she said she wouldn’t shut down a unit if a couple of officers commit “some egregious act” and because she needs that unit to keep working.

“The whole idea that the Scorpion unit is a bad unit, I just have a problem with that,” she said.

A few hours later, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the unit had been inactive since the Jan. 7 arrest.

“It is clear that these officers violated department policy and training,” he said.

The city “is initiating an external, independent review of our special forces’ training, policies and operations,” Strickland said in a statement.

Davis acknowledged that the police department has a shortage of supervisors and said city officials have pledged to provide more of them.

“The lack of surveillance in this incident was a major concern,” Davis said. “When officers are working, they should have at least one supervisor for each group or squad of people. Not just someone doing the paperwork in the office, but someone actually embedded in that unit.”

The recording shows police brutally beating Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx employee, for three minutes while shouting profanities at him during the attack. The Nichols family legal team has compared the attack to the infamous 1991 police beating of motorist Rodney King in Los Angeles.

The video shows officers holding Nichols down and repeatedly beating him with fists, boots and batons while the black motorist yelled for his mother.

The video is riddled with violent moments, showing officers chasing Nichols and leaving him on the sidewalk propped up against a squad car as they fist-slam and celebrate their actions.

After the first officer roughly pulls Nichols out of a car, Nichols can be heard saying, “I didn’t do anything,” as a group of officers begin to wrestle him to the ground.

An officer is heard yelling, “Tase him! Tase him!”

Nichols says calmly, “Okay, I’m down.”

“You guys are really busy right now,” says Nichols. “I’m just trying to go home.”

“Stop it, I’m not doing anything!” he yells moments later.

Nichols is then seen running away as an officer fires a taser at him. The officers then begin chasing Nichols.

Other officers are called and a search ensues before Nichols is caught at another intersection. The officers beat him with a baton, kicked and beat him.

Surveillance camera footage shows three officers surrounding Nichols as he lies on the street between police cars, with a fourth officer nearby.

Two officers pin Nichols to the ground while he moves, and then the third appears to kick him in the head. Nichols slumps lower onto the sidewalk with all three cops around him. The same officer kicks him again.

The fourth officer then walks over, draws a baton and holds it at shoulder level while two officers hold Nichols upright as if he were seated.

“I’m going to fucking beat you up,” one officer is heard saying. His body cam shows him raising his baton while at least one other officer holds Nichols down. The officer hits Nichols in the back three times in a row with the baton.

The other officers then appear to be hoisting Nichols to his feet, with him wriggling like a doll and barely able to stand up.

An officer then slaps him in the face while the officer with the baton continues to threaten him. Nichols stumbles and turns, still held by two officers. The officer who hit him then goes to Nichols’ front and hits him four more times. Then Nichols collapses.

Two officers are then seen on Nichols on the ground for about 40 seconds, with a third nearby. Then three more officers run over and one kicks Nichols to the ground.

When Nichols slumped against a car, none of the officers offered any help. Body cam footage shows a first-person view of one of them reaching down and tying his shoe.

It was more than 20 minutes after Nichols was hit and lying on the sidewalk before medical assistance was rendered, although two firefighters with medical kits arrived at the scene within 10 minutes.

In the videos, officials are making claims about Nichols’ behavior that are not supported by the footage or that the prosecutor and other officials said did not happen. In one of the videos, an officer claims that Nichols grabbed the officer’s gun at the first traffic stop before fleeing and almost had his hand on the grip, which is not shown in the video.

After Nichols is handcuffed against a police car, several officers say he must have been high. Later, one officer says no drugs were found in his car, and another immediately counters that Nichols must have thrown something away while trying to escape.

Authorities have not released an autopsy report, but they said there appeared to be no justification for the traffic stop and nothing of note was found in the car.

Court records showed all five former officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith – were taken into custody.

The officers are each charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, administrative misconduct, and administrative repression. According to court and prison documents, four of the five officers had posted bail and been released from custody Friday morning.

Second-degree murder carries a penalty of 15 to 60 years in prison under Tennessee law.


Associated Press reporters Aaron Morrison in New York, Travis Loller in Nashville, Tennessee, and Rebecca Reynolds in Lexington, Kentucky contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. The Memphis police video leaves many questions unanswered

Sarah Y. Kim

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