Memphis beating video puts spotlight on first police account

The newly released video shows Memphis cops beating motorist Tire Nichols with punches and kicks, and also using pepper spray and a baton, with Nichols howling in pain as he tries to shield the punches.

But initially, in a statement released to social media the day after the incident, the Memphis Police Department used vague language to describe the attack and said nothing to indicate that officers acted with the callousness and violence that the police said captured in the video clips released late Friday.

It is the latest example in a long line of early police reports of the use of force that were later found to have minimized or ignored violent and sometimes fatal encounters, including the Minneapolis Police Department report following the killing of George Floyd in 2020

In its initial comment on the arrest of Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx employee, on the night of Jan. 7 by members of the city police’s so-called Scorpion unit, the department vaguely said that the officers involved were “routinely relieved” of duty ” during an investigation and an outside agency was called in.

With Nichols dying in a hospital, the official police report said he was pulled over for reckless driving when “a confrontation took place” and he fled on foot. He was almost home after taking sunset photos in a park.

“Another confrontation ensued while trying to take the suspect into custody; however, the suspect was eventually arrested,” police said Jan. 8. “After that, the suspect complained of shortness of breath, after which an ambulance was called to the scene of the crime. The suspect was transported to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition.”

No mention was made of punches, kicks, pepper spray or batons.

Law enforcement agencies can increase public trust by being more transparent and providing initial statements about such encounters, said Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a professor at Case Western Reserve Law School.

“It’s misleading,” Bell Hardaway said of the police’s initial statement about Nichols’ arrest. “It’s ringing for a regular traffic stop, although we actually know these weren’t officers on patrol looking for speeding.”

“I wonder what caused her to report this incident and admit it in the first place,” Bell Hardaway said.

Asked about that initial statement, Memphis Police Department spokeswoman Maj. Karen Rudolph Saturday said only that “all information released is preliminary.”

Nichols and the five officers charged with murder who were fired from the department are all black.

It’s common for law enforcement agencies to release information about an incident with very little description when they lack full details, often just “information so general that it’s practically unhelpful,” said Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina, a former police officer.

“I actually don’t think that’s a big issue as long as there’s detailed follow-up,” Stoughton said. “Agencies need to be prepared for the potential of lying by omission. Or deception, let’s not say lies, or deception by omission.”

Civil rights attorney Michael Avery, a founder of the National Police Accountability Project, said police and elected officials may be involved in downplaying officer misconduct.

“They don’t want to acknowledge that these things are happening, especially in their city or under their authority,” Avery said. “I would say there is a predisposition to denial.”

He said the use of the passive voice in the Memphis Police Department’s initial statement – that confrontations ensued – obscured what really happened.

“It’s not true either,” Avery said. “He was complaining of shortness of breath? If you look at the video, he’s either unconscious or semi-conscious. Calling that a complaint of shortness of breath is ridiculous.”

Nichols died on January 10th. Announcing his death the following day, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said he “succumbed to his injuries,” but did not describe their kind.

Just three days later, on Jan. 14, the public learned that Nichols went into cardiac arrest and kidney failure after being beaten by police, his stepfather told local media. More recently, attorneys for Nichols’ family said an autopsy performed by a forensic pathologist they hired revealed severe internal bleeding.

The indication of breathing problems was reminiscent of Floyd’s death in 2020 after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for minutes as he lay face down in the street and repeatedly shouted, “I can’t breathe.” Police there initially said publicly, Floyd died of a “medical incident during a police operation”.

The Minneapolis Police Department spokesman who made the statement later said he did not attend the scene or review the body camera footage and that once video from bystanders surfaced and outside agencies were called in, he could not make a corrected statement .

Publicly released videos have also contradicted police reports elsewhere, such as in Buffalo, New York, where officers said a protester hit his head as he “stumbled and fell,” but the video showed he had been pushed by two officers .

In Philadelphia, officials said a college student who suffered a serious head wound from a metal police baton assaulted an officer. However, the student was released after prosecutors saw video of an officer hitting him in the head and neck with a baton.


Scolforo reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Associated Press reporter Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee contributed.

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