Video showing five Memphis officers beating a Black man was made public Friday, one day after they were charged with murder in the death of Tyre Nichols.
The footage shows Nichols being held down, struck by the Black officers and screaming for his mother as the police savagely beat the 29-year-old FedEx worker for three minutes. The Nichols family legal team has likened the assault to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.
Cities across the country braced for large demonstrations. Nichols’ relatives urged supporters to protest peacefully.
“This young man, by definition of the law in this state, was terrorized. Not by one, not by two, but by five officers who we now know … acted in concert with each other,” said attorney Antonio Romanucci, who represents Nichols’ family.
The officers “acted together … to inflict harm, terrorism, oppression of liberty, oppression of constitutional rights, which led to murder,” Romanucci said.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn Davis described the officers’ actions as “heinous, reckless and inhumane,” and said that her department has been unable to substantiate the reckless driving allegation that prompted the stop.
She told The Associated Press in an interview that there is no video of the traffic stop that shows Nichols recklessly driving.
During the initial stop, the video shows the officers were “already ramped up, at about a 10,” she said. The officers were “aggressive, loud, using profane language and probably scared Mr. Nichols from the very beginning.”
“We know something happened prior to this officer or these officers getting out of their vehicles … Just knowing the nature of officers, it takes something to get them amped up, you know, like that. We don’t know what happened,” she said.
“All we know is the amount of force that was applied in this situation was over the top,” Davis said.
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.
Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, warned supporters of the “horrific” nature of the video but pleaded for peace.
“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.”
Speaking at the White House, President Joe Biden said Friday that he was “very concerned” about the prospect of violence and called for protests to remain peaceful.
Biden said he spoke with Nichols’ mother earlier in the day and told her that he was going to be “making a case” to Congress to pass the George Floyd Act “to get this under control.” The legislation, which has been stalled, is meant to tackle police misconduct and excessive force and boost federal and state accountability efforts.
FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was “appalled” by the video and that all FBI field officers have been alerted to work with state and local partners, including in Memphis, “in the event of something getting out of hand.”
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.
Second-degree murder is punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison under Tennessee law.
Patrick Yoes, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, condemned the alleged actions of the Memphis officers.
“The event as described to us does not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong. This is a criminal assault under the pretext of law,” Yoes said in a statement.
Rallies and demonstrations were planned Friday night in Memphis, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, New York City, Portland, Oregon and Washington.
New York Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, said he and other mayors across the country had been briefed by the White House in advance of the video’s release, which he said would “trigger pain and sadness in many of us. It will make us angry.”
Romanucci and civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who also represents Nichols’ family, called on the police chief to disband the department’s so-called scorpion unit focused on street crime.
Nichols “at all times was an innocent victim,” Romanucci said 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.
As state and federal investigations continue, Davis promised the police department’s “full and complete cooperation.”
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 police of causing Nichols to have a heart attack and kidney failure. Authorities have said only that Nichols experienced a medical emergency.