Someone within the City of Memphis, and I hope it’s the Chief of Police, understands that the murder of Tyre Nichols is not about rogue officers. It’s not about bad apples. It’s about a police culture that encourages brutality and indifference, and if that culture can’t change, the Memphis Police Department has forfeited its right to patrol the streets.
The City of Memphis has released four videos. Everyone will focus on the last three because they capture Mr. Nichols’ murder. But someone in the city made the decision to also release body camera footage from an officer who was present when Memphis police first stopped Mr. Nichols. So far as I know, this officer has not been named, has not been charged, and was not present when Mr. Nichols was beaten to death. But if you wonder whether the murder is connected to a culture within the department, this is the video to watch.
The body camera in this video captures the moments after Mr. Nichols stopped his car. It’s worn by an officer who arrives just as another officer reaches into Mr. Nichols’ car, drags him out and, assisted by a third officer, forces Mr. Nichols to the ground.
At this point, the police apparently know nothing about Mr. Nichols except that he is a Black man who was allegedly driving recklessly. No video yet disclosed by Memphis confirms this allegation and the Chief of Police has said she has seen no evidence to support it. But even assuming it is true, the officers know nothing to suggest that Mr. Nichols was armed or violent. Indeed, in the course of the entire evening, no officer indicates they had ever seen Mr. Nichols before. They don’t even imply that they knew him by reputation. So far as they know, he is simply a young Black male motorist who may have driven recklessly, and nothing more.
Yet there is no way to describe the officers’ behavior except as aggressive, abusive, and belligerent. If anyone wants to know what the warrior mentality looks like on the street, watch this stop. This is how Memphis officers treat Black male motorists about whom they know virtually nothing. Mr. Nichols, whom the police variously describe as “thin” and “slim,” is submissive and frightened as he is surrounded by what looks like three or four much larger Memphis police officers. If you don’t trust any of my adjectives, or if you doubt any of this description, I strongly encourage you to watch the video. Here’s the link again. (These officers were part of a special unit that the Memphis Police Chief has disbanded, to her credit. The question, however, is whether she also changes the cultural mindset that made the officers in that unit behave as they did.)
The officers sprayed a chemical agent in Nichols’ eyes, apparently several times. This agent burns horribly and makes it extremely difficult to see. A person sprayed will reflexively turn their head and try to wipe their eyes, which is exactly what the officers did when the spray got in their own eyes. As they did, Mr. Nichols got up and ran from the scene. As he ran, an officer fired a taser at him and believes that he hit him.
One group of officers chased after Mr. Nichols, even though the ostensible threat—reckless driving—had ended. At least two remained at the scene, apparently because of the chemical agent in their eyes. And as one officer complains that he “can’t see shit,” he sends out his hope for what should happen to Mr. Nichols when his colleagues finally catch him:
“I hope they stomp his ass.”
He says this though he knows his body camera is recording every word he says. It is the sort of unrehearsed, unmediated declaration that throws open a window into a department’s culture. If extralegal violence were unheard of in the Memphis Police Department, if there weren’t a cultural expectation that a person who makes the police look silly has to be “stomped,” this officer wouldn’t have expressed his hope on tape. Tellingly, the other officer at the scene does not react or object to this statement, at least not that we can see or hear.
Have you ever seen someone beaten to death? Not on television, but in real life. At a certain point, the repeated blows will render the victim utterly helpless. They can’t run away. They can’t cover their face. They can’t protect themselves. Yet they’re still conscious; it’s actually much more difficult to knock someone unconscious than it appears on TV. They can still cry out and make pitiful, ineffectual attempts to escape. They crawl and moan while blows rain down. More kicks to the head or back. More punches to the face.
If you’ve never seen someone beaten to death, now you can.
The second video is taken from a camera attached to a pole in a residential neighborhood. There is no audio. It provides a largely unobstructed view of Mr. Nichols being beaten to death by the police. It’s horrific.
When the camera picks up the scene, Mr. Nichols is already on the ground, surrounded by four officers. One, and perhaps two officers spray him in his eyes. As Mr. Nichols reflexively tries to wipe his eyes, some officers continue to spray him while others scream, “Give me your hands! Gimme your hands, bro!” As Mr. Nichols turns his body to free a hand to wipe his eyes, the police become more aggressive. At least two officers kick him in the back and head. At this point, a fifth officer arrives and beats Mr. Nichols across the back with his police baton. It’s hard to tell, but Mr. Nichols may also have been tased again during this period.
By this time, Mr. Nichols is badly weakened and defenseless. The officers lift him up and, as he is surrounded by four officers, a fifth punches him viciously in the head and face. Over and over. His head snaps back and drops. No officer tries to intervene or prevent any part of the assault. Three days later, he died in the hospital.
In some ways, the last 25 minutes of the second video are as hard to watch as the first five. After they beat Mr. Nichols, the police drop him to the ground. He is handcuffed from behind. After a couple minutes, they drag his limp body along the ground and prop him up against a police car. And for about a quarter of an hour, the police do nothing. No one administers first aid. No one checks his welfare.
By this time, Mr. Nichols is barely conscious. He cannot remain propped against the car. He falls to the left and lolls helplessly. The police grab him and prop him up again. He falls to the right. They prop him up again. More officers arrive. They mill around, talking with each other. Someone places a first aid bag next to Mr. Nichols but for long minutes, no one bothers to open it. A crowd of officers gathers. An officer adjusts his pants and reties his shoes. Finally, an ambulance arrives and takes him away, 22 minutes after the beating ended.
This simply doesn’t happen absent a culture of indifference.
The third and fourth videos are body camera footage from officers at the scene of the beating. They add detail to the video provided by the pole camera, and because they are footage from body cameras, they include audio. On these videos, you can see Mr. Nichols sprayed repeatedly with the chemical agent and the futile attempts he makes to wipe his eyes. You can hear his groans. You can hear him calling out for his mother, again and again. You can see that he never makes any aggressive movements and that an officer has his arm even as he is shouting for Mr. Nichols to give him his hands.
And when the beating is finally over and Mr. Nichols lay prone, you can see the officers wandering around their police cars, catching their breath and checking their phones. You can hear them recount the details of the chase, both for each other and the officers who arrived after it was all over. You can hear them as they get their story straight. “He was high on something, bro. He was high as a motherfucker.” “He strong, I tell you that. He strong as a motherfucker.” “I opened that car door, he punched me.” “He reached for my gun. He had his hand on my gun.” None of this happened. At least, you can’t see any of it on the videos released by the city.
If someone asked you what happened in Memphis, what would you say? Would you say that five Memphis police officers have been charged with murder after they killed an unarmed man? That’s an easy and familiar headline: “Police Kill Unarmed Man” Can you file it all away now and move on, reassured by the fact that, thanks to the tapes, these five officers will almost certainly be convicted and sent to prison for a very long time? Is that the story?
Someone in the City of Memphis understands that that’s not the story. The murder of Tyre Nichols came at the end of a long series of culturally-determined decisions and choices involving scores of officers with decades of combined experience. It’s a story about recruitment. About training. About locker room culture. It’s a story about incentives and relationships. It’s about how Memphis police learn to patrol “those” neighborhoods and deal with “those” people, a designation that transcends simple narratives about race. It’s about what it means in Memphis to be a “good cop,” and the stories the good cops tell the new guys about the difference between legal and extralegal justice.
It’s about everything that adds up to the difference between dignity and brutality, and if the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department can’t change the culture they’ve created, their officers don’t deserve the badge.
After this essay appeared, the media reported that the Memphis Police Department had suspended the officer whose body camera captured the first video and who expressed the hope that other officers would “stomp” Mr. Nichols.