Five police officers from Memphis, Tennessee who murdered the 29-year-old Black father Tyre Nichols, were arrested and charged with second-degree murder on January 26. Nichols was brutally beaten for three minutes by Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith following a traffic stop on January 7. He succumbed to his wounds three days later, in the hospital. An autopsy found that he had suffered excessive internal bleeding as a result of the beating.
His death provoked mass outrage in Memphis and throughout the country, and many have been demanding accountability for those responsible.
Although police violence is prevalent in the US (2022 recorded 1,176 police killings, more than any year in US history), it is extremely rare for police to be held accountable for these crimes. From 2013 to 2022, 98% of police murders did not result in officers being charged for a crime.
So why did the Memphis Police Department (MPD) fire all five officers less than a month later, on January 20, and arrest these same officers the following week?
It could be a result of the massive backlash to Nichols’ murder although many cases of police violence receive a similar response with far fewer results. Breonna Taylor’s murder had sparked massive protests yet the officers responsible were never charged by the state of Kentucky. The only charges were against Brett Hankinson for shooting into Taylor’s neighbors’ apartment while carrying out her murder.
Also notable is how quickly MPD repudiated its own officers. MPD Chief Cerelyn Davis said the murder was “a failing of basic humanity.” In the US, cases of police violence are often met with the “blue wall of silence,” in which police officers refuse to denounce the crimes of their own, as if honor-bound to indifference.
Many suspect that the reason there was such a quick response by the judiciary and severe condemnation by fellow officers is because all the officers responsible are Black. In the case of white cops who murder Black people, their crimes largely go under the radar, or they receive minor repercussions, such as paid temporary leave or in extreme cases, firings. This was the case for Daniel Pantaleo, who was videotaped murdering Eric Garner by using a chokehold. Pantaleo was fired from the New York Police Department, but never charged with a crime. When cases receive a lot of attention, right-wing media also often rushes to defend the police officer implicated. This has not been the case with the officers responsible for Nichols’ murder.
No Gofundme campaigns to raise defense money for cops, no public vilification of the victim by the media, no suspension w/pay pending a long drawn out ‘investigation,’ no calls to withhold judgment, no cries of ‘Blue Lives Matter’ in the case of Tyre Nichols—the cops are BLACK.
— Bishop Talbert Swan (@TalbertSwan) January 26, 2023
Some also suspect that MPD fears that an uprising could unfold, akin to the one in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, when the body camera footage of the police killing is released on Friday, January 27. In a January 26 video statement, Chief Davis heavily hinted at the gruesomeness of the video footage.
“This incident was heinous, reckless, and inhumane,” she said. “And in the vein of transparency, when the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourselves. I expect you to feel what the Nichol’s family feels. I expect you to feel outraged in the disregard of basic human rights. As our police officers have taken an oath to do the opposite of what transpired on the video.”
Other officials have also referenced the contents of the video. Memphis District Attorney Steve Mulroy implied that the officers are shown delaying medical assistance for Nichols. “There was an elapsed period of time” before medical assistance was requested, Mulroy said in response to a question regarding a possible intentional delay. “But I believe if you watch the video, you’ll be able to make that judgment for yourself,” he continued.
Mulroy told CNN, “This is serious business, these are extremely serious charges…After everyone sees the video, I don’t think they’ll have any questions about those charges.” According to Mulroy, nearly one hour of footage will be released.
David Rausch, director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said, “I’ve been policing for more than 30 years. I’ve devoted my life to this profession…I’m shocked, I’m sickened by what I saw and what we learned through our investigation.”
Nichols’ family saw the footage on Monday, and reported through their lawyer that Nichols was pepper sprayed, shocked with a stun gun, and restrained.
Chief Davis also heavily implied that MPD was preparing for a major uprising following the release of the video footage. “I expect our citizens to exercise their First Amendment right to protest, to demand action, and results,” she said in her January 26 statement. “But we need to ensure our community is safe in this process. None of this is a calling card for inciting violence or destruction on our community, or against our citizens.”
The New York Times reported that the Tennessee Homeland Security Department has already made preparations for protests following the release of the video footage on January 27.
Video footage has played a major role in the uprisings against police violence over the past decade. The massive anti-police brutality protests in 2020 were sparked following the release of video footage of Floyd’s gruesome 9 minute and 29 second strangulation by officer Derek Chauvin.
The original Minneapolis police press release following Floyd’s death was titled, “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.” Without the video, shot by young woman bystander Darnella Frazier, this could have been the public’s only impression of George Floyd’s death.
After viewing the video on January 23, Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, said, “no father, mother, should have to witness what I saw today.” RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, said, after watching the same footage, “We are going to get justice for Tyre, if that’s the last breath I take.”