State Watch

Five unanswered questions about the Tyre Nichols case

When Memphis officials released video footage of the beating of Tyre Nichols, they did so in an attempt at transparency.

But that footage — which showed five officers brutally beating the 29-year-old Black man and leaving him with injuries that eventually led to his death — has since spurred even more questions.

The five officers, all of whom are Black, were fired and face criminal charges.

Here are five unanswered questions about the Tyre Nichols case. 

Why was Nichols stopped? 

When news of Nichols’s death first came out, the Memphis Police Department released a statement that said he was initially stopped for reckless driving. 

In the harrowing video footage, one officer can be heard telling the others that “He [Nichols] cut through traffic.” 

Officers can also be heard saying “He’s on something.” 

“He higher than a motherf—er,” one officer said after the violent beating. 

“He high as a kite,” another added.

But Memphis Chief of Police Cerelyn Davis later said there was no evidence to corroborate the reckless driving claims.

An independent autopsy conducted by Nichols’s family attorney, Ben Crump, did not specify if Nichols was high at the time of the incident.

It’s also unclear why the initial stop turned violent in the first place. 

In the first of four videos released, body camera footage shows officers approaching Nichols’s car with their weapons drawn, and one officer immediately pulling Nichols from behind the wheel. 

Some have begun to question if there is additional – or missing – body camera footage that has not yet been released that would provide answers to these questions. 

How often did Scorpion task force stops turn violent?

Nichols was stopped by members of the Scorpion task force — a unit of officers designed to patrol specific areas of the city and focus on auto thefts and gang-related or drug-related crimes.

The unit launched in November 2021. By January 2022, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland (D) said the unit was responsible for 566 arrests and had seized $103,000 in cash, recovering 270 vehicles and 253 weapons between October 2021 and Jan. 23, 2022.

But after Nichols’s death, accusations of Scorpion officers using excessive force spread.

Crump and Antonio Romanucci, attorneys representing the Nichols family, said the unit created “a continual pattern and practice of bad behavior.”

A report by The New York Times found that members of the SCORPION unit would often stop Memphis residents for minor crimes like “a tinted window violation, a seatbelt infraction, a broken taillight or cracked windshield.” Officers would then uncover illicit drugs, weapons or stolen vehicles.

The report said officers during the stops would become increasingly violent, leading to people being pepper-sprayed, tasered or beaten.

It’s unclear how often Memphis residents were subjected to “excessive force” at the hands of the task force, which is now disbanded. 

On Jan. 26, Strickland said the department would launch an “outside, independent review of the training, policies and operations” of all other specialized units. 

Why did it take so long for help to arrive?

Memphis fire chief Gina Sweat said emergency medical technicians arrived 10 minutes after police called for them. Once there, the EMTs called for an ambulance, which arrived 14 minutes later.

But the two EMTs who first arrived on scene did not administer any care to Nichols until 19 minutes after they arrived.

Neither EMT took Nichols’s vital signs, conducted an examination of him or gave him oxygen, despite Nichols groaning and saying he was having trouble breathing.

The two EMTs, who have been fired from the police department and had their medical licenses suspended, did help Nichols sit up a few times, but mostly left him alone. The video footage showed the EMTs at one point walk away for 30 seconds as Nichols lay on the ground.

It remains unclear why the EMTs did not administer medical to Nichols or why it took so long for an ambulance to arrive.

NAACP Memphis Branch President Van Turner is now calling for the EMTs to face charges.

Who were the other officers involved? 

The five Black officers directly involved in beating Nichols were identified, fired and charged before the release of the video footage on Jan. 27. 

Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith were indicted on one charge of second-degree murder, one charge of aggravated assault, two charges of aggravated kidnapping, two charges of official misconduct and one charge of official oppression. 

But a few days later, a sixth officer was relieved of duty.

Preston Hemphill, who was hired in 2018, was the officer whose body camera footage was the first video released by authorities. 

That video showed a white officer involved in the initial stop of Nichols, who is later hit by some of the officers. Pepper spray is also shown being used in the video. One officer can also be heard saying, “I hope they stomp his ass” after Nichols escaped from their custody. 

Hemphill was not present at the second scene where Nichols was beaten. 

Since the department identified Hemphill, a seventh unidentified officer has also been relieved of duty. Others on the scene, including emergency medical responders, have not been identified. 

Video footage shows there were at least three officers involved in the initial stop before Nichols escaped and at least eight personnel on scene after officers beat Nichols.

How long will the civil rights investigation take?

The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that the FBI’s Memphis office and the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice were conducting a civil rights investigation into Nichols’s death.

The investigation will be independent from the Memphis Police Department’s probe. The Justice Department (DOJ) will conduct interviews with members of the community, stakeholders and other police officers to determine if there is a pattern of unlawful policing within the department.

Information about the status of the probe will not be released until the investigation is completed but it’s unclear how long this could take. The DOJ has not released a timeline or indicated when its report will be released.

If a pattern of malpractice is found, it’s unclear what steps the DOJ will take to end the unlawful policing — or how long it could take for these changes to go into effect. 

Tags Ben Crump Black Lives Matter FBI Memphis police reform Tyre Nichols

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