Ex-Memphis officers charged with murder in beating of Tyre Nichols; video to be released Friday

FILE - Family members and supporters hold a photograph of Tyre Nichols at a news conference in Memphis, Tenn., Jan. 23, 2023. The U.S. Attorney's Office said Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023 the federal investigation into the death of a Black man who died after a violent arrest by Memphis police "may take some time." Speaking during a news conference, U.S. Attorney Kevin G. Ritz said his office is working with the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division in Washington as it investigates the case of Tyre Nichols, who died three days after his Jan. 7 arrest. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, file)
Family members and supporters hold a photograph of Tyre Nichols at a news conference in Memphis on Monday. (Gerald Herbert / Associated Press)

Five former police officers in Memphis, Tenn., were charged with second-degree murder Thursday in the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop, authorities said.

Former Officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith, who are Black, were each charged with one count of second-degree murder, two counts of official misconduct, one count of official oppression, one count of aggravated assault while acting in concert, and two counts of aggravated kidnapping in the death of Nichols, according to the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.

"I'm excited. It shows that justice is being served. It doesn't matter the color of the officers. The fact is, the officers did what they did, and it was unnecessary," Nichols' aunt Kandi Green said in an interview with The Times.

The encounter occurred Jan. 7 and was captured on police body cameras.

The Memphis Police Department and other law enforcement agencies across the country were bracing for reaction to the release of the video showing the beating of Nichols, who died on Jan. 10.

The city of Memphis announced it would release video of the police encounter Friday after 4 p.m. Pacific time. Police departments including the LAPD were on notice as they prepared for demonstrations.

"This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual. This incident was heinous, reckless and inhumane," said Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis in a video statement Wednesday evening. "When the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourselves."

Davis, taking an apologetic tone in her address, urged citizens to peacefully exercise their 1st Amendment rights, adding that the disturbing video must not be a "calling card for inciting violence."

Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Nichols' family, said the charging of the officers "gives us hope as we continue to push for justice for Tyre."

"This young man lost his life in a particularly disgusting manner that points to the desperate need for change and reform to ensure this violence stops occurring during low-threat procedures, like, in this case, a traffic stop," Crump said in a statement.

Shelby County Dist. Atty. Steven Mulroy announced the charges Thursday afternoon along with David Rausch, the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

"Frankly, I'm shocked. I'm sickened by what I saw. ... In a word, it’s absolutely appalling,” Rausch said of the video of the encounter between police and Nichols. "We should not be here. Simply put: This shouldn't have happened."

Nichols, a California native and father of a 4-year-old son, grew up in Sacramento and recently moved to Memphis to work for FedEx. He loved to skateboard and practiced photography, according to family.

Nichols was pulled over Jan. 7 and arrested on suspicion of reckless driving, according to Memphis police. Nichols' family attorneys say they believe he was stopped for driving the wrong way down a one-way street.

Officers and Nichols were just 100 yards from the home of Nichols' parents during the encounter, according to Jennifer McGuffin, the chief spokesperson for Romanucci & Blandon, the law firm representing Nichols' family.

When officers approached Nichols' car, a confrontation occurred, and Nichols ran off, police said.

Attorney Antonio Romanucci — who has seen portions of the police body-camera video — said Nichols asked why he was being pulled over during the initial stop. Officers quickly used pepper spray on him, and he fled from his car, Romanucci said.

The police officers pursued Nichols, and another confrontation took place, which led to Nichols' arrest and subsequent hospitalization, police said.

"When he tried to leave, they caught up to him," Romanucci said. "They showed him who they are."

The attorney described a "savage" beating that was more akin to the Rodney King beating that led to the Los Angeles riots in 1992 than the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

"It was a severe beating," Romanucci said.

He added that, although only five police officers were charged, there were more police on scene. He estimated that 10 to 12 officers were in the video.

"Nobody I heard, no one said they should stop," Romanucci said.

Nichols can be heard in the video screaming, "What did I do?" and calling for his mother, he added.

Romanucci, who also represented the family of George Floyd, said the Nichols video was particularly "shocking and disturbing."

The video to be released Friday shows Nichols being tased, pepper-sprayed, beaten and restrained for three minutes, McGuffin said. She also said that Nichols called for his mother, and that he told officers he wished to go home.

A day after the incident, while Nichols was hospitalized, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched a use-of-force inquiry at the request of the local district attorney.

Nichols had a bright smile, his aunt recalled.

"He just had one of those spirits, one of those personalities that would draw you to him," Green said. "He was a sweetheart. Every time you seen him, he had a smile on his face. ... Never had a criminal record. Never been in any type of trouble. All-around good kid."

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the New York-based civil rights leader, said that he would be traveling to Memphis and that he had spoken with the Nichols family.

"The fact that these officers are Black makes it more egregious to those of us in the civil rights movement. These officers should not be allowed to hide their deeds behind their Blackness," Sharpton said in a statement. "We are against all police brutality — not just white police brutality."

A long horizontal image composed of five official police portraits of officers.
From left, former Memphis Officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith. (Memphis Police Department)

Less than two weeks after Nichols' death, the Police Department announced the firing of the five officers who were involved in the confrontation.

William Massey, an attorney representing Martin, said his client surrendered Thursday morning and was "resolved to put this behind him."

"What police do is dangerous and difficult," Massey said. "And I think this is every policeman’s fear, that something like this would happen on their watch."

A lawyer for Mills said his client was "shocked to have found himself in this position."

"He dedicated his whole life to serving his community," attorney Blake Ballin said.

The Memphis Police Assn., the union representing police officers in the city, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The five officers were part of the Memphis Police Department's Scorpion Unit, a 40-person team dedicated to fighting violent crime in hot spots in the city. "Scorpion" stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.

"It is important to us that each member of the community feels like they can go to the grocery store or live in their house without their house being shot, or the shootings that are frequently occurring on the streets and in the roadways. So, for that reason we launched the Scorpion Unit,” Assistant Chief Shawn Jones said when the unit was started in 2021.

The unit identifies high-crime areas using data and then sends teams to those locations. It was not immediately clear why Scorpion officers were the ones who pulled Nichols over. But the unit has come under fire from activists who say it has not brought down crime and mostly targets low-income residents.

"It essentially preys on Memphians in highly impoverished areas," said Amber Sherman, an activist who organizes with Black Lives Matter's Memphis chapter. "All we’ve seen when folks interact with Scorpion is violence. ... We're looking to end the use of the unit."

In her video address Wednesday night, Chief Davis called for a "complete and independent" review of all specialized units in the department, including Scorpion.

Nichols' death reignited public scrutiny of police brutality nearly three years after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer set off nationwide protests and launched the #DefundThePolice movement.

Police departments across the country were put on high alert Thursday with the announcement of charges against the officers, prepping for potential demonstrations, especially after the Nichols video is released publicly.

LAPD spokesman Warren Moore told The Times the department was preparing for possible protests.

"We're setting up different watches and making sure we have the proper resources out," the officer said.

The department is "flirting with" going to A and B watch, which means every officer works a 12-hour shift followed by 12 hours off; it's an expensive action but ensures there are more officers on duty.

Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.