On Friday, January 27th, the Memphis Police Department released four videos detailing the violent arrest and beating of Tyre Nichols. A wave of outrage swept across the country, as protests once again filled city streets, demanding an end to police brutality. Yet to millions of Americans, the brutal killing of Nichols was not a surprise, or even a unique event, with many quick to draw comparisons to the 1991 police beating of Rodney King. In fact, what surprised most people was the speed with which the cops involved were fired and charged for their actions as cases involving police brutality usually take months if any charges are raised at all.
The videos released on the city’s Vimeo depict a traffic stop being made on Nichols’ vehicle, whereafter he was ripped out of his car and told to “get on the ground” and to put his hands behind his back, despite his hands being held by other cops in a way that made it impossible for him to comply. Over the entire course of the arrest, police officers shouted “71 different commands in 13 minutes” (Source: NYT), many of which were contradictory or even impossible. After being shocked by a taser and pushed onto the ground, Nichols’ fight-or-flight reflex engaged, and he ran away.
The remaining footage is incredibly graphic, showing several police officers repeatedly punching Nichols, hitting him with a baton, and throwing him around “like a human piñata,” while other officers idly stood by, not intervening in the brutal beating. Calling for his mother, Nichols was eventually brought to the ground where he lay writhing in pain, while still being beaten and kicked by officers. Finally, after propping his near-lifeless body against the car, the officers talked amongst themselves for minutes as Nichols collapsed. Upon arriving at the hospital, Nichols was in critical condition, passing away only three days later.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis described the attacks as “heinous” and “inhumane”. While the attack was certainly all of these things, it was also not unique. In fact, the United States leads all other democracies in police killings per capita (Source: Council on Foreign Relations). Additionally, a 2020 report by Harvard detailed that Black Americans were 3.23 times more likely to be killed by police than white Americans. Black Americans have a 20% higher chance to be pulled over than white Americans, and even Davis herself described that the officers had “no proof” with which to pull Nichols over.
While the Memphis Police Department has tried to distance itself from the cops involved, those particular officers are only part of the problem. The brutal killing was executed by the city’s SCORPION unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, which was implemented by Police Chief Davis herself. The brutality displayed by a unit designed to “restore peace” is clear evidence of the violence and racism inherent in American policing. In moments like these, it is clear that this deadly culture all too often surpasses the personal beliefs of the officer, driving police to commit acts of violence like these.
This sentiment is further reflected in the initial police report and the conversations which took place while Nichols was laying, slumped and near-unconscious, right next to the officers. He is described as an angry man who “started to fight” and was “probably on drugs,” and, at one point, is described as reaching for an officer’s gun. In fact, quite the opposite is seen in the videos. Nichols responds to police commands with compliance, saying, “Yes, Sir,” never attempting to strike back at the officers, holding no illicit substances in his pockets or vehicle, and never trying to grab any officer’s gun. After Nichols ran away from the initial encounter, the body camera footage captures an officer saying, “I hope they stomp his ass,” and after the brutal beating, the officers are again filmed, almost joking, with one cop describing hitting Nichols with “haymakers.”
The stark contrast between information released by the police department before Nichols’ death and actual video footage shines a clear light on many of the issues with police culture in America. A similar comparison can be drawn to the murder of George Floyd in May 2022, where an official report by the police station initially described the killing as a “medical incident,” only changing their tune after filmed phone footage began to spread across the internet. The worst part is that this brutality and callousness is a uniquely American thing as “in England and Wales, police forces are legally required to refer serious misconduct cases, including any killing by an officer, to an independent watchdog.” (Source: CFR) In 2019, American police killed over 1,000 people; U.K. police killed 3. This problem is clearly preventable and certainly not normal around the globe, but until a significant change is made, America’s minorities will continue to suffer at the hands of the police.