The city of Memphis is bracing for public outrage when it releases later on Friday police video of a violent confrontation between a Black motorist and five police officers charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols earlier this month.
The five officers, all Black, were each charged with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression on Thursday in the death of Nichols, who was also Black.
Nichols succumbed to injuries he sustained from his encounter with police and died while hospitalized on Jan. 10, three days after he was pulled over while driving.
His death marked the latest in a spate of high-profile cases of police officers accused of using excessive force in the deaths of Black people and other minorities in recent years, sparking public outcries against systematic racism in the U.S. criminal justice system.
Protests against racial injustice erupted globally following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes.
Police have been highly opaque about the circumstances of Nichols’ arrest. Even Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, who sought the indictment, described the incident in vague terms when announcing the charges.
After Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving, “an altercation” ensued in which officers doused him with pepper spray, and Nichols tried to flee on foot, Mulroy said. “There was another altercation at a nearby location at which the serious injuries were experienced by Mr. Nichols.”
The video to be released on Friday evening on the police department’s YouTube channel is expected to include footage captured by police-worn cameras, cameras mounted on dashboards of police vehicles and security cameras on utility poles in the vicinity.
The few individuals who viewed the video before its release and have spoken about it publicly have not characterized it in detail but say it is deeply disturbing.
“You are going to see acts that defy humanity. You’re going to see a disregard for life, duty of care that we are all sworn to,” Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis told CNN on Friday.
Davis said her department has not yet been able determine whether there was probable cause for the officers to initially pull Nichols over for reckless driving – a police stop that quickly escalated into violence.
“We’ve taken a pretty extensive look to determine what that probable cause was, and we have not been able to substantiate that. It doesn’t mean something didn’t happen, but there is no proof,” she said.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, speaking to reporters at a news conference in Washington on Friday, said his agency has opened a federal civil rights investigation into the incident.
Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump, representing Nichols’ family, compared it the 1991 videotaped beating of Black motorist Rodney King by four police officers whose acquittal of criminal charges the following year sparked several days of riots in Los Angeles.
“This young man lost his life in a particularly disgusting manner that points to the desperate need for change and reform to ensure this violence stops occurring during low-threat procedures, like in this case, a traffic stop,” Crump and colleague Antonio Romanucci said in a statement.
The last words heard on the video were Nichols calling out for his mother three times, Crump said.
On Friday, Tyre Nichols’ mother RowVaughn Wells said her son’s face was battered and his nose in an S-shape when she saw him in his hospital bed.
“When my husband and I got to the hospital and I saw my son, he was already … gone. They had beat him to a pulp,” she said in a tearful interview broadcast on CNN.
An official autopsy in the case has yet to be completed.
All five officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith – were fired from the police force on Jan. 21 after an internal investigation found they breached multiple departmental policies, including use of excessive force.
Four of the officers have posted bail and have been released from jail, a local CBS affiliate reported early on Friday. Haley remained in jail on a $350,000 bond.
Two members of the Memphis Fire Department involved in the response have been relieved of their duties pending a separate inquiry.
Police departments in some major cities – including New York, Atlanta and Washington – said they were preparing for possible protests following the video’s release. In Memphis, schools were scheduled to close early and Saturday morning events were canceled.
Davis said she anticipated those seeing the footage “to feel outrage” but appealed for calm.
President Joe Biden on Thursday joined the family in calling for peaceful protests in Memphis, a city of 628,000 where nearly 65% of residents are Black.
Blake Ballin, a lawyer for Mills, said on Thursday his client was “devastated to find himself charged with a crime.” Ballin also said it might be another two weeks before the defendants make their initial court appearances.