The Inexcusable Death of Tyre Nichols
You’ve heard the saying that one shouldn’t ascribe to malice what can be explained by incompetence. In the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers, there is ample evidence of both.
On Friday, officials in Memphis released four videos, each showing different views of the fatal police encounter with Nichols. Three of the videos were taken from body camera footage of involved officers, and the fourth was from a police camera mounted on a streetlight pole overlooking the intersection where Nichols was arrested. For a better understanding of the events as they unfolded, I relied on a montage assembled by the Washington Post, in which each of the four videos appears in a separate panel and is synched with the others. (The time stamps in the various videos are slightly offset, resulting in an imprecise sync.)
The incident began on Jan. 7 at about 8:24 p.m., when Memphis police officers assigned to the SCORPION unit (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) stopped Nichols at the intersection of Raines Road and Ross Road, in the southeast part of the city. As the video begins, an officer drives up to the intersection where Nichols’s car is already stopped facing west in the left-turn lane of Raines Road. As this officer exits his car, we see two unmarked blue Dodge Chargers, one to the left and parallel to Nichols’s car, the other in front and perpendicular to it as if parked to cut off Nichols’s path. The reason for the initial stop is not made clear in the video, but it is immediately apparent that the officers are in a heightened emotional state.
For clarity, or as much as can be had at this point, let’s label the officers thus far involved as Officers 1, 2, and 3. Officer 1 is the one arriving and whose body camera footage we see. Officer 2 is at the driver’s side of Nichols’s car, and officer 3 is on the right side. “Get the f*** out the f***ing car,” says Officer 2 as he pulls Nichols from the driver’s seat. Nichols appears to be cooperative as he is roughly handled and forced to the ground next to his car. Despite Nichols’s apparent docility, officers continue to shout profanity-laced commands at him, some of them nonsensical.
“Get on the ground!” shouts an officer, even as Nichols is already seated on the pavement and offering no resistance. What follows is difficult to discern on the body camera footage, but for reasons I can neither explain nor even imagine, Officer 1 deploys a Taser, and Officer 2 or 3 (perhaps both) sprays Nichols with pepper spray. Neither the Taser nor the pepper spray appears to be effective as Nichols is able to get up and escape, running south on Ross Road. Officers 1 and 3 briefly pursue on foot but give up after running about 200 feet.
When Officer 1 broadcasts Nichols’s description and direction of travel, the communications operator asks an important question: “Any charges on him?” Implicit in the question are considerations of how much time and effort should be expended in locating and arresting the outstanding suspect. Officer 1 does not answer. The time is now 8:27.
As Officers 1 and 3 return to the intersection, Officer 2 gets in his car, the one perpendicular to Nichols’s, and drives off south on Ross Road. Officers 1 and 3 remain at the intersection, with Officer 1 helping Officer 3 rinse pepper spray from his eyes. Neither Officer 1 nor 3 are involved in what follows.
At 8:32, two officers in an unmarked car spot Nichols near the intersection of Ross Road and Castlegate Lane, about 1,700 feet south of where he was first stopped. We’ll call the passenger Officer 4 and the driver Officer 5. They stop their car on Ross and chase Nichols on foot, with Officer 4 reaching him first and pushing him to the ground. Officer 5 soon arrives, as does Officer 6 driving a gray unmarked Charger. (We have no body camera video from Officer 6.) At 8:32:53, as shown on Officer 4’s body camera, Nichols is on the ground with Officer 4 having control of his left arm. Nichols can be heard shouting “Mom,” several times (his mother reportedly lives a short distance away).
At 8:33:01, the video image from Officer 4’s camera goes black, as it appears to have fallen to the ground. For several seconds, the only video available is that of Officer 5, which shows Officers 4 and 6 punching Nichols in the head as he lay on the ground. Officer 5, for no reason I am able to discern, sprays Nichols with pepper spray. At 8:33:19, Nichols appears to be utterly vanquished as he lies on the ground trying to wipe the pepper spray from his eyes. “All right, all right,” Nichols says. He is neither resisting nor attempting to escape.
At 8:33:24, we see the arrival of another officer in a blue unmarked Charger. This may be Officer 2, the one who had pulled Nichols from his car at the initial traffic stop, but I have a degree of uncertainty about this, so I will refer to him as Officer X. It is Officer X, in my opinion, who inflicted the most serious injuries on Nichols. For reasons that can’t be discerned on Officer 5’s body camera, Officers 4, 5, and 6 resume punching Nichols as he lay on the ground. Officer X joins the fray, though what force he used on Nichols at that point, if any, isn’t clear in Officer 5’s video.
There is a police-operated camera mounted on a streetlight pole on the northeast corner of Castlegate Lane and Bear Creek Lane. When Nichols is first confronted at that intersection, the camera is aimed east on Castlegate and does not capture the initial takedown. At 8:33:30, the camera begins panning to the west, finally settling on the action taking place at 8:33:45. At that time we see Officer X near the front of his car, Officer 5 walking west toward the other unmarked car after apparently spraying himself with pepper spray, and Officers 4 and 6 standing over Nichols.
As Officers 4 and 6 grapple ineffectively with Nichols, with one of them saying, “Give me your f***ing hands,” Officer X can be seen walking over and, at 8:34:14, delivering a kick to Nichols’s head. At 8:34:27 he kicks Nichols in the head a second time.
At 8:34:54, after recovering sufficiently from pepper spraying himself, Officer 5 extends a collapsible baton, walks over to Nichols and says, “Watch out, I’m gonna baton the f*** out of you.” He delivers two strikes with the baton, both of which appear to hit Nichols in the back.
Nichols rises to his feet, and at 8:35:14, as Officers 4 and 6 grapple with him, Officer X rears back and punches Nichols in the head. He punches him four more times over the next several seconds and Nichols falls to the ground. Officer 5 walks away and broadcasts their location as Officers X, 4, and 6 continue grappling with Nichols.
At 8:36:04, the flashing lights of at least one arriving police car can be seen, and soon Officer 7 and 8 appear, neither of whom appear to use force on Nichols. At 8:36:21, an officer can be seen kicking Nichols, possibly in the head. (This may have been Officer 4, 6, or X. Given their distance from the camera and the similarity of their appearance, it’s difficult to discern who delivers this kick.)
Officer 9 comes into frame at 8:36:21. He is the first to appear wearing a standard police uniform, indicating he works patrol rather than the SCORPION unit. He at first seems unsure of what he should do, but eventually he takes the prudent action of controlling Nichols’s legs. Finally, at about 8:37, it appears Nichols is handcuffed, and at about 8:38 he is dragged over and placed in a seated position against the side of an unmarked car.
Fire department medics arrive at the scene at 8:41 and, contrary to some reports, they begin to assess Nichols’s condition, the life-threatening nature of which could not have been apparent at the time. Nichols was conscious, breathing, and not bleeding profusely, so there was no indication of an injury that should or could have been addressed and stabilized at the scene.
At 9:00, an ambulance gurney is rolled into view, and at 9:02 an ambulance arrives and parks in such a way as to block the pole camera’s view of Nichols, after which the video ends. Nichols is taken to St. Francis Hospital in Memphis, where he dies on January 10.
An official autopsy report on Nichols has not yet been released, but a pathologist hired by Nichols’s family performed an independent autopsy and concluded Nichols died from “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.”
That’s exactly what it was, and in my judgment not a single kick, punch, baton strike, Taser activation, or use of pepper spray can be justified under the law. And while five of the involved officers have been fired and charged with murder, I believe it is the one I call Officer X who is the most culpable in the death of Tyre Nichols, for it was he who delivered the two kicks and five vicious punches to Nichols’s head that will likely prove to have been the fatal blows.
But while the incident ended in criminality, it began in incompetence. The three officers involved in the initial stop were unable to subdue and restrain Nichols even after putting him on the ground, this despite the fact that at least two of them appeared to outweigh him by at least fifty pounds. I will grant that it is not easy to handcuff someone who does not wish to be, but given the minimal level of resistance Nichols appeared to be offering, it should have been a simple matter of one officer controlling his legs while the other two each controlled an arm. If in attempting this they were still unable to handcuff him, they should have kept him on the ground until additional officers arrived.
The same can be said for when Nichols was taken down minutes later. With two, three, then four officers coping with Nichols, who was already on the ground, they should have had him in handcuffs within seconds, as even minimally competent officers could have accomplished. What instead followed was not something that even remotely resembled a lawful use of force, but rather some 3 a.m. Waffle House beat-down. It was a disgrace.
In addition to the incompetence, in addition to the outright thuggery, other failures are evident if not explicit in the videos released on Friday. At no time during the incident, despite it lasting more than a half-hour, is there any indication that a supervisor responds and takes charge. Was there a SCORPION unit sergeant on duty at the time, and if so, where was he?
Also telling is how few patrol officers responded to the incident. A foot pursuit in most police departments would bring every available officer within miles, regardless of their assignment. Here, only two patrol officers appear to have responded. To me, this says most of the patrol officers were aware of the SCORPION unit’s reputation, as reflected in this incident, and chose not to involve themselves.
The five officers implicated in Nichols’s death had between two and six years on the job, the prime range for cops to think they are more skilled than they are and less accountable than they should be. This is doubly so in specialized units, and even more so in units that are inadequately supervised, as the SCORPION unit seems to have been.
Let each of these five now-former officers answer to the charges in court, and let each receive justice according to his own conduct. But the repercussions shouldn’t stop there. When the incident is examined more deeply, perhaps we will learn how far up the chain of command the SCORPION unit’s manifest deficiencies were known. It is inconceivable to me that Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis was unaware of them. She deserves to lose her job, as does anyone who turned a blind eye to the misconduct that surely preceded the inexcusable death of Tyre Nichols.