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.

Not too much to ask.

“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.

A threat and a promise.

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.

Up to the juries now.

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.

Elvis doesn't live here anymore.

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?

The usual suspects now appear.

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.

Do MAGA Republicans Cause Street Crime?

If you were to judge the state of affairs in today’s America based solely on President Biden’s assessment, you might assume the greatest threat to your personal safety is that posed by all those “MAGA Republicans” he so logorrheically denounced in his speech to the nation from Philadelphia last week. “MAGA Republicans,” he said, “do not respect the Constitution. They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people.”

Such a curious speech it was, with the words inspired by Vladimir Lenin and the cinematography by Leni Riefenstahl. The president mentioned MAGA Republicans 13 times before he finished, with the references growing more and more ominous as he proceeded. “MAGA Republicans,” he darkly intoned, “look at America and see carnage and darkness and despair. They spread fear and lies – lies told for profit and power.”

And the viewer was left to think: “Sinister bunch, those MAGA people. I must secure the doors and windows and be on the lookout for them.”

But if you were to go out on the streets of America today in search of actual acts of violence committed by this group, which the president came just short of labeling as Enemies of the People, would you find any? And when you did encounter genuine carnage and despair, when you witnessed actual affronts to the rule of law, which in most cities wouldn’t take long at all, do you think you could attribute any of it to MAGA Republicans?

Of course not.

If your senses can bear it, take a few minutes to peruse the Twitter feed from Street People of Los Angeles, one of several feeds where you can find videos, photos, and news stories illustrating the lawless, dystopian depths to which large swaths of Southern California have descended. As you watch the videos, ask yourself how many of the people shown committing the various acts of depravity are MAGA Republicans, and how many would be more inclined to vote for Democrats?

Look closely at the hundreds of videos you can find on the internet of the recent phenomenon of street takeovers in Los Angeles, where crowds converge on major intersections and commandeer them into use as temporary raceways, occasionally leaving behind a looted convenience store and even a dead body or two when they move on. Do you see any clothing or bumper stickers betokening allegiance to the MAGA movement?

And of course it’s not just Los Angeles. Street takeovers, or “sideshows,” have become common elsewhere, Chicago, for instance, where responding police officers routinely come under attack from the mobs. Do you see any MAGA hats or T-shirts on any of the people shown committing these crimes, or do you think they’re more likely to vote for the party that’s run that city since the Earth cooled?

President Biden of course reminded us of the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, as we are incessantly reminded of it by his many servants in the elite media. We should brook no excuses for anyone’s criminal behavior that day, but neither should we overlook the wide variance in what that behavior was. It is true, as the president said, that some Jan. 6 protesters “brutally attack[ed] law enforcement,” but it is also true that the great majority of them are guilty of nothing more than trespassing, or even "parading," a crime most often punished by a modest fine. Let all the Jan. 6 protesters have their day in court without delay and let each be judged according to his own misdeeds, but to claim that even the most committed of them represented a clear and present danger to the republic, as the president did on Thursday, is beyond absurd.

And when discussing the menace posed by MAGA Republicans, it bears reminding that of those whose deaths have been attributed to the Jan. 6 riot, the only verified victim of deliberate homicide was Ashli Babbitt, an unarmed woman who, for no legal justification I am able to discern, was shot and killed by a U.S. Capitol Police lieutenant. Unlike any number of people killed by the police in recent years, Babbitt’s death aroused little curiosity in the press, whose members yawned when federal authorities declared the killing justified in a memo that was insulting in its cursory brevity.

There can be no gainsaying the perception that the law itself and the fervor with which it is enforced are sometimes calibrated so as to align with the interests of those in power. We have reached the point where Washington, D.C., and all its corridors of power are regarded among the opinion makers of the news media, the entertainment industry, and academia as the rightful province of Democrats, and that any time Republicans gain control of them it is regarded among those same opinion makers as a usurpation to be corrected by whatever means necessary, to include the mobilization of the FBI in the cause.

How else to explain President Biden’s fixation on the supposed dangers posed by MAGA Republicans while ignoring the very real mayhem committed by leftists? Was the effort to identify and arrest every last Jan. 6 protester commensurate with that directed at those who rioted at Donald Trump’s Jan. 2017 inauguration, and those who for an appalling 100 straight nights laid siege to the federal courthouse in Portland, Oregon? Was there a similar effort expended to bring to justice those who rampaged in cities across America following the 2020 death of George Floyd, even those who committed murder in his name?

Though ignored in President Biden’s speech and absent from any of his policy prescriptions, there is a very real violent crime problem in America today. We are lately told to be comforted by the fact that murder in the U.S. has declined from last year, but less comforting is the knowledge that this slight downward trend follows the massive increase that began in the summer of 2020—the Summer of George Floyd.

Neither the president nor his trusted stenographers in the media will dare talk about who is responsible for this bloodshed, but be assured it isn’t MAGA Republicans.