Editor’s Note: This article contains graphic videos and descriptions of violence.
Protesters once again took to the streets over the weekend to decry police brutality after the release of video depicting the violent Memphis police beating of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, and more gatherings and vigils are planned for Sunday.
Nichols could be heard yelling for his mother in the video of the January 7 encounter, which begins with a traffic stop and goes on to show officers repeatedly beating the young Black man with batons, punching him and kicking him – including at one point while his hands are restrained behind his back.
He was left slumped to the ground in handcuffs, and 23 minutes passed before a stretcher arrived at the scene. Nichols was eventually hospitalized and died three days later.
“All of these officers failed their oath,” Nichols’ family attorney Ben Crump told CNN’s Dana Bash on Sunday. “They failed their oath to protect and serve. Look at that video: Was anybody trying to protect and serve Tyre Nichols?”
Demonstrators marched through New York City, Atlanta, Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland, among other cities across the nation on Saturday, raising signs bearing Nichols’ name and calling for an end to abuses of authority.
“To see the events unfold how they’ve unfolded, with this Tyre Nichols situation, is heartbreaking. I have a son,” said Kiara Hill, standing at a makeshift memorial near the Memphis corner where Nichols was beaten. “And Tyre, out of the officers on the scene, he was the calmest.”
Since Nichols’ death, the backlash has been relatively swift. The five Memphis officers involved in the beating – who are also Black – were fired and charged with murder and kidnapping in Nichols’ death. The unit they were part of was disbanded, and state lawmakers representing the Memphis area began planning police reform bills.
Crump said that the quick firing and arrests of the police officers and release of video should be a “blueprint” for how police brutality allegations are handled going forward. He applauded Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis for arresting and charging the officers within 20 days.
“When you see police officers commit crimes against citizens, then we want you to act just as swiftly and show as the chief said, the community needs to see it, but we need to see it too when it’s White police officers,” Crump said.
Memphis police shut down SCORPION unit tied to deadly beating
The five former Memphis police officers involved in the arrest have been charged with second-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping, among other charges, according to the Shelby County district attorney.
The officers, identified as Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin and Desmond Mills Jr., are expected to be arraigned February 17.
The attorney for one of the officers indicted, Mills Jr., put out a statement Friday night saying that he didn’t cross lines “that others crossed” during the confrontation.
All five officers were members of the now-scrapped SCORPION unit, Memphis police spokesperson Maj. Karen Rudolph told CNN on Saturday. The unit, launched in 2021, put officers into areas where police were tracking upticks in violent crime.
Memphis police announced Saturday that it will disband the unit, saying that “it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION Unit.”
But disbanding the unit without giving officers new training would be “putting lipstick on a pig,” city council chair Martavius Jones told CNN Saturday.
City council member Patrice Robinson also told CNN disbanding the unit does not go far enough in addressing issues within the agency.
“We have to fight the bad players in our community, and now we’ve got to fight our own police officers. That is deplorable,” Robinson said. “We’re going to have to do something.”
The fallout from the deadly encounter also stretched to other agencies involved.
Two Memphis Fire Department employees who were part of Nichols’ initial care were relieved of duty, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. And two deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office have been put on leave pending an investigation.
Lawmakers plan to file reform bills
A pair of Democratic state lawmakers said Saturday that they intend to file police reform legislation ahead of the Tennessee General Assembly’s Tuesday filing deadline.
The bills will seek to address mental health care for law enforcement officers, hiring, training, discipline practices and other topics, said Rep. G.A. Hardaway, who represents a portion of Memphis and Shelby County.
Rep. Joe Towns Jr., who also represents a portion of Memphis, said legislation could pass through the state house as early as April or May.
While Democrats hold the minority with 24 representatives compared to the Republican majority of 99 representatives, Towns said this legislation is not partisan and should pass on both sides of the legislature.
“You would be hard-pressed to look at this footage (of Tyre Nichols) and see what happened to that young man, OK, and not want to do something. If a dog in this county was beaten like that, what the hell would happen?” Towns said.
As for national legislation, Crump called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2021 but not the evenly split Senate.
The Congressional Black Caucus is requesting a meeting with President Joe Biden this week to push for negotiations on police reform, caucus chair Steven Horsford wrote in a news release Sunday.
“We are calling on our colleagues in the House and Senate to jumpstart negotiations now and work with us to address the public health epidemic of police violence that disproportionately affects many of our communities,” he wrote. “The brutal beating of Tyre Nichols was murder and is a grim reminder that we still have a long way to go in solving systemic police violence in America.”
US Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois and chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, called for Congress to revive national police reform legislation and said the previously stalled legislation was a good starting point.
“It’s the right starting point, and Sen. (Cory) Booker, chairman of the crime subcommittee, has been working on this for years. I think he and Sen. (Tim) Scott should sit down again quickly to see if we can revive that effort, but that in and of itself is not enough. We need a national conversation about policing in a responsible, constitutional, and humane way,” he said.
‘I’ll never have my baby again’
By the time she saw her son, badly bruised and swollen in his hospital bed, Nichols’ mother says she knew he wasn’t going to make it.
“When I saw that, I knew my son was gone, the end,” RowVaughn Wells told CNN.
Through tears, the mother said the officers charged with her son’s death “brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community.”
“I don’t have my baby. I’ll never have my baby again,” she said. But she takes comfort in knowing her son was a good person, she said.
The 29-year-old was a father and also the baby of his family, the youngest of four children. He was a “good boy” who spent his Sundays doing laundry and getting ready for the week, his mother said.
A GoFundMe created by Nichols’ mother has raised over $1,085,600 as of Sunday afternoon. The donations will go towards the cost of Wells’ and her husband’s mental health services as well as their time off from their jobs, according to the page. It also adds that they want to build a memorial skate park in honor of Tyre and his love for skating and sunsets.
The online fundraiser reads in part: “My baby was just trying to make it home to be safe in my arms. Tyre was unarmed, nonthreatening, and respectful to police during the entire encounter!”
Nichols loved being a father to his 4-year-old son, said his family.
“Everything he was trying to do was to better himself as a father for his 4-year-old son,” Crump said at the family’s news conference.
“He always said he was going to be famous one day. I didn’t know this is what he meant,” Wells said Friday.
CNN’s Hannah Sarisohn, Sarah Fortinsky, Jasmine Wright, Phin Percy, Mark Morales, Shimon Prokupecz, Sara Smart, Chuck Johnston, Jamiel Lynch, Sharif Paget, Christina Zdanowicz, Amanda Watts, Aileen Graef and Jaide Timm-Garcia contributed to this report.