Explained: The Tyre Nichols assault case and its aftermath

The story so far: The death of a 29-year-old Black man in Tennessee due to police brutality has sparked outrage and calls for justice across the U.S. after a graphic video depicting the violent incident was released last week. 

Tyre Nichols was returning home from a park— where he had gone to capture the sunset— when he was pulled over by the Memphis police for alleged reckless driving. The 70-minute footage released by authorities showed five Black officers kicking, punching and beating the 29-year-old repeatedly for three minutes even though he appeared to pose no threat. After the footage was made public, protests intensified over the weekend, amid renewed calls for change in police culture.

In 2020, the George Floyd case triggered worldwide protests and led to a massive outcry against racial injustice and the use of excessive police force against minorities. George Flyod died after a white Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for several minutes as he repeatedly cried out that he wasn’t able to breathe.

Who was Tyre Nichols and what happened?

Tyre Nichols was just minutes from his home in Memphis when he was pulled over by police and beaten. (AP)

Father of a four-year-old, Tyre D. Nichols lived in Sacramento, California, before he moved to Memphis during the COVID-19 pandemic and chose to stay back. Nichols worked at a FedEx facility with his stepfather. His family describes him as a skateboarder who loved photography. “Photography helps me look at the world in a more creative way. It expresses me in ways I cannot write down for people,” Tyre Nichols wrote on his website, which hosts a gallery of what he called his masterpieces.

On January 7, Nichols was minutes away from his home, as he told his mother, when he was pulled over by Memphis police officers. The authorities initially claimed that Nichols ran away following a confrontation with cops and was arrested after a second confrontation. He was taken to the hospital after he “complained of having a shortness of breath”, according to police. Nichols died three days later.

The death of the 29-year-old sparked outrage, with family and friends accusing the police of assaulting Nichols and causing him to suffer a heart attack. “When we got to the hospital, it was devastating. All of that still should not occur because of a traffic stop,” his stepfather told local media.

The police department and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation ordered separate probes to look into the arrest and use of force. Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department also ordered a civil rights investigation into Nichols’ arrest.

Angry protesters pushed Memphis police to release body camera and surveillance footage from the traffic stop to ascertain the sequence of events on that fateful day, but the Memphis Chief of Police said it would be made public only after the investigation wascomplete.

Rodney Wells, stepfather of Tyre Nichols, speaks at a news conference with civil rights Attorney Ben Crump, seen comforting Tyre’s mother RowVaughn Wells. (AP Photo)

Rodney Wells, stepfather of Tyre Nichols, speaks at a news conference with civil rights Attorney Ben Crump, seen comforting Tyre’s mother RowVaughn Wells. (AP Photo)

What action was taken against the policemen?  

Less than two weeks after the incident, five police officers involved in the arrest of Nichols were dismissed after an internal probe found them guilty of excessive use of force and failure to intervene and render aid. The officers — all Black and between the ages of 24 and 32 — were charged with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. if convicted of second-degree murder, they face up to 60 years in prison.

Addressing media, the District Attorney said that policemen had used pepper spray during the altercation and Nichols had tried to flee on foot. “There was another altercation at a nearby location at which the serious injuries were experienced by Mr. Nichols,” the prosecutor was quoted in a Reuters report.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, meanwhile, termed the guilty officers’ actions “heinous, reckless and inhumane”. In a video statement, she added that more officers were being investigated for violating department policy. She also urged people to protest peacefully when the video was made public. 

A day later, video footage of the arrest was made public.

What does the footage show?

Video clips from police bodycams and a camera mounted on a utility pole showed Memphis police officers brutally hitting Nichols and using pepper spray during a traffic stop.

The footage shows an officer roughly pulling Nichols out of a car. He says he hasn’t done anything, but cops try to pin him to the ground. Nichols flees after an officer fires a taser at him. A chase ensues.

Cops catch him at another intersection where he is kicked and beaten up with a baton. Security camera footage shows three officers surrounding Nichols as he lies on the ground An officer then holds the 29-year-old in a sitting position, while another strikes him on the back repeatedly. The kicking and punching continue and Nichols collapses as a result. None of the officers, however, help him. Nichols is not provided medical attention for over 20 minutes despite the presence of two fire department officers who arrived at the scene with medical equipment. 

Officers are heard making claims throughout the videos but none are supported by the footage. Following the probe, authorities said nothing of note was found in the 29-year-old’s car and that there appeared to be no justification for the traffic stop.

The aftermath 

The chilling footage drew widespread condemnation, with reports of peaceful protests in various cities including Memphis and New York city.

Protesters march in front of police headquarters in Memphis over the death of Tyre Nichols. (AP)

Protesters march in front of police headquarters in Memphis over the death of Tyre Nichols. (AP)

Protests in New York City were largely peaceful despite a few arrests and some minor clashes between police and protesters. U.S. President Joe Biden said he was outraged and deeply pained to see the video of the beating. “It is yet another painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day,” Mr. Biden said. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris also called for an end to the use of excessive force in America. “We must build trust—not fear—within our communities,” she said.

Meanwhile, a specialised Memphis police unit that included some of the officers involved in the fatal beating — the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighbourhoods (Scorpion) — has been deactivated. The Scorpion unit was formed in October 2021 to concentrate on crime hotspots.

Nichols’ death raised concerns that the unit strayed from its core mission and used tactics that increased the risk of violence.

Citing a “cloud of dishonour” from the released footage, the police department said it was permanently deactivating the unit after the chief spoke with members of Nichols’ family and community leaders.  “It is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the Scorpion unit,” she said.

(With inputs from agencies)

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