Authorities on Friday were set to release police video depicting five Memphis officers beating a Black man whose death resulted in murder charges and provoked outrage at the country’s latest instance of police brutality. Family members of Tyre Nichols pleaded for any protests to remain peaceful.
The officers, all of whom are Black, were charged Thursday with murder and other crimes in the killing of Nichols, a motorist who died three days after a Jan. 7 confrontation with the officers during a traffic stop.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told a news conference that although the officers each played different roles in the killing, “they are all responsible.”
Nichols’ family members and their lawyers said the footage shows officers savagely beating the 29-year-old FedEx worker for three minutes in an assault that the legal team likened to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis described the officers’ actions as “heinous, reckless and inhumane,” and said Friday that her department has been unable to substantiate the reckless driving allegation that prompted the stop.
“As far as I know today, I do believe that the stop itself was very questionable,” she told ABC’s Good Morning America.
Video of the traffic stop will be released sometime Friday evening, Mulroy said, noting that investigators wanted to complete as many interviews as possible before making the footage public. Nichols’ family members viewed the video Monday.
Given the likelihood of protests, Davis told ABC that she and other local officials decided it would be best to release the video later in the day, after schools are dismissed and people are home from work.
As a precaution, Memphis-area schools canceled all after-class activities and postponed an event scheduled for Saturday morning. Other early closures included the city power company’s community offices and the University of Memphis.
Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, warned supporters of the “horrific” nature of the video but pleaded for peaceful protests.
“I don’t want us burning up our city, tearing up the streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” she said Thursday. “If you guys are here for me and Tyre, then you will protest peacefully.”
Davis also urged calm after the video’s release.
“None of this is a calling card for inciting violence or destruction on our community or against our citizens,” she said.
Andre E. Johnson, pastor of Gifts of Life Ministries and a local activist, noted that past protests in Memphis have largely been peaceful. He said the anticipation of unrest is different from when white people stormed the US Capitol or “show up at any statehouse with weapons,” and said people in the community see the contrast.
“Any time any violence has ever happened in this city, more than likely it has come from the police,” he said. “I pray that the police tonight will not be violent, and I pray that all goes well.”
On Thursday night, several dozen supporters joined Rodney and RowVaughn Wells for a candlelight vigil and prayer service at a Memphis skate park. Nichols, who had a four-year-old son, was an avid skateboarder.
Activists and clergy led the group in prayer. Afterward, skaters rode their boards as the Wells family watched.
Court records showed that all five former officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith – were taken into custody.
The officers each face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Four of the five officers had posted bond and been released from custody by Friday morning, according to court and jail records.
Martin’s lawyer, William Massey, and Mills’ lawyer, Blake Ballin, said their clients would plead not guilty. Lawyers for Smith, Bean and Haley could not be reached.
“No one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die,” Massey said.
Both lawyers said they had not seen the video.
“We are in the dark about many things, just like the general public is,” Ballin said.
Second-degree murder is punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison under Tennessee law.
Attorneys for the Nichols family, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, called on Davis to disband the police department’s so-called scorpion unit focused on street crime.
Nichols “at all times was an innocent victim,” Romanucci told reporters Friday. “He did nothing wrong. He was caught up in a sting. This scorpion unit was designed to saturate under the guise of crime fighting, and what it wound up doing instead was creating a continual pattern and practice of bad behavior.”
Davis said other officers are still being investigated for violating department policy. In addition, she said “a complete and independent review” will be conducted of the department’s specialized units, without providing further details.
Two fire department workers were also removed from duty over the Nichols’ arrest.
As state and federal investigations continue, Davis promised the police department’s “full and complete cooperation” to determine what contributed to Nichols’ Jan. 10 death.
Crump said the video showed that Nichols was shocked, pepper-sprayed and restrained when he was pulled over near his home. He was returning home from a suburban park where he had taken photos of the sunset.
Relatives have accused the police of causing Nichols to have a heart attack and kidney failure. Authorities have only said Nichols experienced a medical emergency.
One of the officers, Haley, was accused previously of using excessive force. He was named as a defendant in a 2016 federal civil rights lawsuit while employed by the Shelby County Division of Corrections.
The claims were ultimately dismissed after a judge ruled that the plaintiff had failed to file a grievance against the officers within 30 days of the incident.
Of the Memphis Police Department’s 2,006 commissioned officers, 1,194, or 59.5%, are Black, police spokesperson Karen Rudolph said.
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