The Reporter (Vacaville)

Memphis beating video puts spotlight on first police account

- By Mark Scolforo

Newly released video shows Memphis police officers battering motorist Tyre Nichols with punches and kicks and also using pepper spray and a baton, with Nichols howling in pain as he tried to shield the blows.

Yet initially, in a statement posted on social media the day after the incident, Memphis police used vague language to describe the attack and said nothing to suggest the officers had acted with the callousnes­s and violence captured by the video clips made public late Friday.

It's the latest example in a long string of early police accounts regarding use of force that were later shown to have minimized or ignored violent and sometimes deadly encounters, including the account given by Minneapoli­s police after George Floyd's killing in 2020.

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

As Nichols was dying in a hospital, the official police account said he had been stopped for reckless driving when “a confrontat­ion occurred” and he fled on foot. He was nearly home after having taken sunset photos at a park.

“While attempting to take the suspect into custody, another confrontat­ion occurred; however, the suspect was ultimately apprehende­d,” police said Jan. 8. “Afterward, the suspect complained of having a shortness of breath, at which time an ambulance was called to the scene. The suspect was transporte­d to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition.”

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

Police department­s could increase trust among the public by being more transparen­t and forthcomin­g with initial statements about such encounters, Case Western Reserve Law School professor Ayesha Bell Hardaway said.

“It's misleading,” Bell Hardaway said regarding the first police statement about the Nichols arrest. “It rings of a regular traffic stop, when in fact we know that these were not officers on patrol looking for speeding.”

“I wonder what prompted them to call out this incident and to acknowledg­e it at all,” Bell Hardaway said.

Asked about that initial statement, Memphis police spokeswoma­n Maj. Karen Rudolph on Saturday said only that like “all informatio­n that is released, it is preliminar­y.”

Nichols and the five officers, who have been charged with murder and fired from the department, are all Black.

It's common for police agencies to issue informatio­n on an incident with very little descriptio­n when they lack complete details, often just “informatio­n that is so generic that it is effectivel­y unhelpful,” said University of South Carolina law professor Seth Stoughton, a former police officer.

“I don't actually think that's a huge problem, so long as there is a detailed follow-up,” Stoughton said. “Agencies need to be attuned to the potential of lies by omission. Or deception, let's not say lies, or being misleading by omission.”

Civil rights lawyer Michael Avery, a founder of the National Police Accountabi­lity Project, said police and elected officials can have a stake in downplayin­g officers' misconduct.

“They don't want to acknowledg­e that these things are happening, particular­ly not in their town or on their watch,” Avery said. “I would say there's a predisposi­tion toward deniabilit­y.”

He said the use of passive tense in the initial Memphis police statement — that confrontat­ions had occurred — disguised what really happened.

“It's also not true,” Avery said. “He complained of shortness of breath? When you watch the video, he's lying there either unconsciou­s or semi-conscious. To describe that as a complaint about shortness of breath is ridiculous.”

Nichols died Jan. 10. In announcing his death the following day, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigat­ion said he had “succumbed to his injuries” but did not describe their nature.

Only three days later, on Jan. 14, did the public learn that Nichols suffered cardiac arrest and kidney failure after being beaten by police, when his stepfather told local media. More recently, lawyers for Nichols' family have said an autopsy conducted by a forensic pathologis­t they hired found extensive internal bleeding.

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