It was a series of mistakes and aggressive tactics that culminated in officers captured on video punching, kicking and striking Tyre Nichols with a baton after a traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee, this month, three retired police officers said.
Ed Davis, Boston’s police commissioner from 2006 to 2013, told NBC News on Saturday that videos of Nichols’ beating at the hands of Memphis police on Jan. 7 “sickened” him.
“It’s not logical to me anymore that any police department in this country could do that type of punishment that we saw — street justice,” Davis said. “Was it a problem in the United States? Yes, it was. Is it still a problem in places? Obviously, we see this in Memphis.”
He continued: “When you see something like this, it’s just such a throwback to ancient police procedures.”
Davis said videos captured Memphis police acting like criminals.
“This whole incident should not be looked at as a police operation. It was more a street crime that occurred among people in uniform.”
'Cops get angry when people resist'
Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was an amateur photographer and skateboarder, was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days after the traffic stop.
Memphis authorities on Friday released videos from multiple vantage points showing the aftermath of the traffic stop. The videos, three from police body cameras and one from a police surveillance camera mounted on a pole, depict Nichols being punched, struck with a baton, kicked in the face and sprayed with an irritant.
They also captured him crying out for his mother and saying he was trying to go home. His mother said he was only about 80 yards from her house when her son was yelling for help. Five Memphis police officers were fired and charged with second-degree murder, and other crimes, including aggravated assault and kidnapping.
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David Thomas, a professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University, worked as a police officer for 20 years in Michigan and Florida. He said the videos caused him to cry and think about his children and grandchildren who are Black and could be pulled over in a seemingly routine stop that spirals out of control.
Thomas noted, however, that all the police officers charged were Black, too.
“It’s about the culture of policing. It’s not about race,” he said.
Georgetown Law professor and NBC News legal analyst Paul Butler appeared Saturday on MSNBC to discuss the release of the Nichols video.
“One of the ironies of this video is if these officers weren’t in uniform and badges, the same thing that happened to Mr. Nichols could have happened to them. That does not mean that they’re not as biased as any other officers. Statistically, Black men and women suffer the same kind of threat from Black and Latinx officers as they do from white officers,” he said.
Butler added: “It’s important that police departments look like the communities that they’re supposed to protect and serve. That’s a necessary condition, but it’s not a sufficient condition of equal justice policing.”
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Thomas said such actions as when Nichols ran away from police after he was pulled out of a car and officers had him on the ground can lead to heightened emotions for officers.
“Cops get angry when people resist. When that anger becomes uncontrolled anger, is the end result of what you saw.”
Roughing up suspects who ran from officers was not abnormal when he began policing in the late 1970s, Thomas said.
“Their job, they believed because you were disrespecting the badge, you needed to be beaten and they were going to teach you a lesson. In some agencies, that history is the history that is there, and nobody talks about it,” he said. “There are policies that prohibit things, then there are unwritten policies that occur and everybody knows about. If the supervisors don’t check it, the unwritten actions, what’s not noted, it’s just allowed to happen because it’s always been that way.”
Foot pursuit policies are rare nationally
Policies around foot chases by officers are rare, according to police experts.
Last year, police in Chicago limited the circumstances under which police officers would be allowed to chase suspects who ran away from them. The policy change occurred more than a year after two foot pursuits ended with officers fatally shooting a 13-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man.
According to a June statement from the department, the update in policy, which provides clear guidelines for when officers can pursue a suspect, also strengthens supervisors’ responsibilities. The policy was guided by “national best practices," police said.
“The safety of our community members and our officers remains at the core of this new foot pursuit policy,” Superintendent David O. Brown said in the statement. “We collaborated internally with our officers and externally with our residents to develop a policy we all have a stake in.”
Officers in Chicago aren't allowed to chase people on foot if they suspect them of minor offenses such as driving on suspended licenses or drinking alcohol in public. But they still have discretion to chase suspects who they’ve determined are committing or about to commit crimes that pose “an obvious threat to any person.”
In 2017, the U.S. Justice Department issued a scathing report saying that too many police chases in Chicago were unnecessary or ended with officers shooting people they did not have to shoot.
Memphis police did not respond to questions about the foot pursuit of Nichols after his car was pulled over. Video shows Nichols escaped while on the ground and an officer shot a stun gun at him. At least one officer appeared to have been hit with a chemical irritant from when it was sprayed at Nichols during the initial encounter.
'It was totally terrible management'
Body camera video shows an officer catching up to Nichols running in his mother's neighborhood and forcing him to the ground.
Davis, the former Boston police commissioner, lamented how there were no supervisors on the scene who could have put a stop to the brutality.
“We pay sergeants and lieutenants to be out on the street,” he said. “And their first responsibility is to control a pursuit and then to respond to anything that is happening. And 30 minutes went by. I saw no sergeant there. I saw no evidence of supervisors at that scene. It was totally terrible management,” he said.
Andrew Scott, a former police chief in Boca Raton, Florida, who is an expert witness of police practices and procedures, said the incident should not have escalated beyond the initial traffic stop but several officers failed to handcuff Nichols.
“The bottom line is there were sufficient number of officers to do as such and to get him corralled and handcuffed at that traffic stop. How he was able to get away is a mystery to me.”
Scott added, “It was a bizarre-type incident where the officers just seemed to be inept in being able to control this young man.”