On Jan. 7, Memphis police pulled over Tyre Nichols, 29, for what was supposed to be a routine traffic stop but turned into a brutal beating reminiscent of how law enforcement assaulted Rodney King in 1991, his family’s lawyers said Monday.
Nichols, who is Black, died three days after being allegedly beaten by police.
“It was so violently intentional. There really was no purpose or basis to be that violent or brutal against a defenseless human being. I mean, this is a citizen. These Memphis police officers are charged with protecting their citizens and instead they literally unabashedly beat him for over three minutes,” attorney Antonio Romanucci told TIME on Tuesday.
Five Black officers—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr., and Justin Smith—involved in the arrest were sacked Jan. 20 after an investigation found they “violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid.”
Two firefighters involved in the traffic stop have also been put on leave.
In 2016, Haley, a then-corrections officer, was accused of participating in a prison assault that left one inmate unconscious, according to a complaint filed to the U.S. District Court in Tennessee, NBC reported Wednesday.
Romanucci and fellow attorney for the family Ben Crump said that the video showed that Nichols was pepper sprayed, restrained, and shocked with a stun gun.
Romanucci said that Nichols was a “human pinata for those police officers,” the Associated Press reported.
Nichols worked at a FedEx facility, had a 4-year-old son, and had his mother’s name tattooed on his arm, according to the New York TImes. He also had Crohn’s disease and suffered from severe weight loss, ABC News reported.
Here’s what to know about the Nichols’ lethal encounter with Memphis police, what investigations are underway, and the official video of the incident.
What happened at the traffic stop?
In an initial description of the incident, police wrote in a Jan. 8 statement that as officers attempted to make a traffic stop for reckless driving, a “confrontation occurred, and the suspect fled the scene on foot.” The statement added that officers pursued Nichols and in attempting to do so “another confrontation occurred” and that he was later apprehended. The statement noted that Nichols “complained of having a shortness of breath” and he was transported to hospital in critical condition.
Officials have said that Nichols had a medical emergency. But Nichols’ family accuse police of causing him to have a heart attack.
Crump also pushed back on an initial statement from the police that a “confrontation occurred” in an interview with TIME on Tuesday. “It’s hard to see Tyre doing anything that resembles a confrontation… but everybody can judge for themselves how unnecessary this was.”
The Nichols family hired a forensic pathologist to review the case and his family’s lawyers say that Nichols’s injuries are consistent with what is shown on the video, following a preliminary independent autopsy. “There were large amounts of blood found in the deep tissues of his body,” Romanucci says.
“When people see this video it’s going to remind them of Rodney King; tragically, the only difference in many regards is that Tyre didn’t survive,” Crump says.
What does the video show?
The arrest video has not yet been released to the public but the family’s lawyers expect that the prosecution will release the footage within two weeks.
“What is so alarming about the video is the escalation from the moment they encountered Tyre—and that escalation only increases,” Crump says. “The first words that you hear Tyre utter is, ‘what did I do?’ And there’s never an answer for that.”
Memphis police announced Monday that they met with Nichols’ family to view the video recordings and that they would comply with investigations. “Transparency remains a priority in this incident, and a premature release could adversely impact the criminal investigation and the judicial process. We are working with the District Attorney’s Office to determine the appropriate time to release video records publicly,” Chief Cerelyn Davis said in the statement.
For the family, justice entails “criminal culpability and civil accountability,” Crump says. It means charging the officers with first-degree murder. “Anything short of that we will not accept,” Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said at a news conference on Monday after viewing the footage.
What investigations are ongoing?
Nichols’s lethal encounter with Memphis police has sparked state, federal, and local probes. The FBI, U.S. Attorney’s Office, and Department of Justice have opened a civil rights investigation. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is also looking into whether police officers broke any laws.
The Memphis Police Association, the city agency’s union, declined to comment on the firing of the five officers. “The citizens of Memphis, and, more importantly, the family of Mr. Nichols deserve to know the complete account of the events leading up to his death” and what may have contributed to it, Lt. Essica Cage-Rosario, the union’s president, said in a statement.
This is not the first time Memphis police has come under fire for excessive force; in 2018, local law enforcement repeatedly shot Martavious Banks after an attempted traffic stop. Footage of the arrest was publicly released in 2020. Banks later settled a lawsuit against the city in 2021 after an investigation highlighted that police had their body cameras turned off—violating department policy.