What The Tyre Nichols Case Means For Police Prosecutions

By Daniel Connolly | February 3, 2023, 9:44 PM EST ·

Almost a thousand people gather at Oscar Grant Plaza in Oakland, California, on Jan. 29 following Tyre Nichols' killing by Memphis police. (Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

When Tyre Nichols was fatally beaten by Memphis, Tennessee, police last month, videos of the incident helped prompt local prosecutors to quickly bring second-degree murder charges against five of the officers involved — a highly unusual result that offers a window into the evolving state of police accountability in the U.S.

The rapidly filed criminal charges aren't the only unusual element of the Nichols case. The incident also prompted the swift firing of the five officers, plus three medical personnel and a sixth officer who wasn't criminally charged. The officers' actions were condemned by authorities ranging from the Memphis police chief to the head of the FBI, and videos of the brutal assault were quickly released rather than hidden away for months or years as authorities in Memphis and elsewhere have frequently done.

But despite quick action from authorities, experts say the response to Nichols' beating is still more the exception than the rule, and that it's too early to tell whether the case represents a permanent shift in how alleged police misconduct is investigated.

"It's still fewer than 2% of the cases where officers killed someone that result in an officer facing charges criminally," said Philip Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University who maintains a widely cited database on police officers accused of crime.

While the number of officers criminally charged with murder or manslaughter for on-the-job fatal shootings has risen to 20 in 2022 from only five in 2010, the number of people killed by police in the U.S. has increased, too. While statistics from 2010 aren't readily available, the number of fatal police shootings rose from 994 in 2015 to 1,096 in 2022, according to a database maintained by The Washington Post.

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Stinson argues that, given the increase in fatal police shootings, the increase in prosecutions is statistically insignificant, and that policing in America has deep cultural issues that encourage excessive force.

"Well, I think it's an us-versus-them mentality, right? It's cops against everyone else. There's good guys and bad guys," he said. "And if you're not one of us, you're one of them. It's a closed society. Secrecy is a big part of it. There's, I think, a fear of Black people that many police officers exhibit, and that's a normalized part of the police subculture."

Given the statistical unlikelihood of a police officer facing criminal charges for killing someone while on duty, why did the Nichols case gain so much traction? There are several reasons: early protests by his family members and other supporters, the intervention of famous plaintiffs attorney Ben Crump and other civil rights leaders, and public discussion of the fact that all five police officers charged are also Black.

But it's hard to imagine any of it would have happened without a particularly damning set of videos.

Violent Blows to the Head

Police stopped Nichols, 29, on the night of Jan. 7, purportedly for reckless driving. Body camera video released later showed him being pulled from his vehicle, roughed up on the pavement and pepper sprayed. He ran away, and an officer fired a stun gun at him.

Police officers soon recaptured Nichols nearby. What happened next was recorded from a nearby pole-mounted police camera. One police officer kicked him in the head. Another hit him with a baton. At one point, two officers held Nichols' arms behind his back and held him up while another officer punched him in the face about five times.

The morning after the beating, the Memphis Police Department released a brief statement describing the incident as a "confrontation" with a motorist following a traffic stop and reported that the man, still unidentified at the time, had been taken to the hospital in critical condition after complaining of "shortness of breath."

On Jan. 10, Nichols died.

Four days later, on Jan. 14, supporters including Nichols' parents held a balloon release and a protest at a Memphis police precinct. They brought with them a shocking image: a large photo of Nichols lying in a hospital bed, intubated, his face disfigured by severe swelling and what looked like a broken nose.

"When we got to the hospital, it was devastating. It was almost as though he was killed on the scene," his stepfather Rodney Wells told local TV stations. He said his son had experienced cardiac arrest and kidney failure.

"All of that still should not occur because of a traffic stop. You shouldn't be on a dialysis machine looking like this," he said, pointing to the picture, "because of a traffic stop. That's un-humane."

With no clarity yet on what had happened, protesters demanded release of the available video. The police department released three body camera videos and the pole camera video nearly two weeks later, on Jan. 27.

In recent years, policing experts say that video recordings have often contradicted police accounts of deadly encounters with civilians. The proliferation of video technology in smartphones, body cameras and other devices has increasingly caught police officers in the act of wrongdoing and made it much harder for them to deny misconduct and for their departments to cover for them, experts say.

"When all you have is the officer's narrative and there's no other physical evidence to refute that narrative, it's very hard to hold an officer accountable," University of Chicago Law School professor Sharon R. Fairley told Law360. "And so having this video, it's just become increasingly important in holding officers accountable. There's no question about that."

Scott Bowman, a criminology professor at Texas State University, said that technology has been the most important development in police misconduct cases in the past 15 years because it has validated long-standing complaints from communities of color and poor communities.

"It's been kind of a confirmation," he said.

Still, Stinson of BGSU said some officers continue to feel emboldened to write false reports and give false testimony in court to support police narratives.

"Not all police officers are liars, but lying is an accepted practice," said Stinson, who is a former police officer.

He agreed that a particularly clear-cut video can help lead to a prosecution and cited the example of Michael Slager, a white officer with the North Charleston, South Carolina, police department who was caught on video in 2015 fatally shooting Walter Scott, who was Black, in the back as Scott ran away and then planting evidence near his body. Slager was eventually convicted of murder and is serving a 20-year prison sentence.

"Some cases, it takes much longer to investigate," Stinson said. "But in these cases where they have these egregious, horrific videos, we have seen officers charged fairly quickly."

'Looking for Justice'

On Friday, Jan. 20, the Memphis Police Department released the names and photos of five officers involved and announced their terminations. A sixth officer was ultimately fired on Feb. 3.

The Monday after the first officers lost their jobs, attorney Ben Crump walked into the sanctuary of Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church, a majority-Black church in downtown Memphis. He was holding the hand of Nichols' mother.

Leading a small firm with offices in Tallahassee, Florida, and other locations around the country, Crump has for decades handled high-profile cases of Black people killed by police, including the 2020 murder of George Floyd.

Addressing a room full of reporters and news crews that had grown from the local to the national, Crump said his team and Nichols' family members had met with the local prosecutor and police chief and been allowed to see graphic video of the beating in private.

"You know, regrettably, it reminded us of the Rodney King video," Crump said, referring to an infamous 1991 police beating in Los Angeles. "And unlike Rodney King, Tyre didn't survive."

Accompanying Crump at the news conference was Antonio Romanucci of the Chicago-based firm Romanucci & Blandin LLC, who had likewise represented Floyd's family and helped extract a $27 million settlement from the city of Minneapolis over his death.

Now, Romanucci promised a civil rights lawsuit against Memphis.

"Not only are we looking for justice, we're looking for positive changes," he said.

Police officials struck a similar tone in the coming days, with Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis releasing a video on Jan. 25 calling the incident "a failing of basic humanity" and promising a review of the department's specialized units and policies and procedures. The department later disbanded the special anti-crime unit that the five officers belonged to.

The following day, Jan. 26, the Shelby County District Attorney's Office announced a state indictment of the five officers on an array of counts, including second-degree murder. The DA who brought the case, Steve Mulroy, had only been in office for a little over four months.

A Different Kind of Prosecutor

Mulroy, a onetime federal prosecutor and federal civil rights attorney, ran for district attorney in 2022 as a progressive Democrat seeking significant criminal justice reforms, including the creation of a special unit to review convictions, less reliance on cash bail and the appointment of independent prosecutors to review police shootings.

His stances represented a major shift from the Republican incumbent, Amy Weirich, whom he would go on to defeat in the DA's race last August.

While Weirich's tenure in the DA's office brought changes to how police-involved fatalities were handled — including taking the responsibility for investigating such cases away from local authorities and giving it instead to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and, eventually, to her office — the new process still left questions over transparency.

During a TBI investigation, for example, police agencies often refused to release basic information, including the names of the officers involved. While local police agencies were increasingly using body cameras, the public release of such videos during the investigative stage was all but unheard of.

After an inquiry that might take months, the TBI would then hand its investigative file off to Weirich's office.

In the overwhelming majority of cases involving police violence, Weirich would go on to clear officers of wrongdoing. A county website chronicling her decisions in 24 officer-involved shootings from 2015 to 2022 showed that Weirich cleared officers of criminal charges in 23 of them. The 24th case was a 2015 fatal police shooting that Weirich presented to a grand jury, but that ultimately didn't result in an indictment.

Some cases in which Weirich cleared officers were relatively uncontroversial, including a 2021 shooting in which an Arkansas state trooper killed two men in a car, one of whom had shot at him and struck his protective vest. But others were more contested, such as a 2018 shooting in which the police department later brought disciplinary cases against officers for misconduct including improper use of body and dashboard cameras. The victim of the shooting went on to sue the city and later received a $200,000 settlement.

The Nichols case, meanwhile, represents the highest-profile test to date of Mulroy's decision-making on police shootings as the new DA.

In announcing the indictments against the officers on Jan. 26, Mulroy told reporters at a news conference that the move came following a referral to the office's new Justice Review Unit for an objective determination on potential criminal charges.

"We all want the same thing," Mulroy said in closing his statement to the press. "We want justice for Tyre Nichols."

"It's my hope that if there is any silver lining to be drawn from this very dark cloud, it's that perhaps this incident can open a broader conversation about the need for police reform," he added. "The world is watching us, and we need to show the world what lessons we can learn from this tragedy."

Svante Myrick, president of the liberal group People for the American Way, wrote in a Feb. 2 blog post that Mulroy's presence in the office had made a big difference in how the case was handled.

"The man responsible for so swiftly charging the officers was progressive Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy," he said. "I believe the decision of the voters to elect a person with Mulroy's values made most, if not all, the difference when this latest incident of horrific police brutality took place."

The Road Ahead

Mulroy isn't the only prosecutor attracting attention for aggressively approaching cases of possible police brutality. In Alameda County, California, newly elected District Attorney Pamela Price recently announced plans to reopen investigations into eight police shootings or in-custody deaths, including some that had taken place years earlier.

Fairley, the University of Chicago professor, told Law360 that Illinois state government has adopted measures to reform investigations of deaths at the hands of police, including requiring local authorities to appoint outside agencies to conduct reviews, and requiring the release of video within 60 days in most cases. Walling off prosecutorial decisions for a special unit can likewise make a difference, she said.

Bowman, of Texas State University, said further research is needed on police use of force.

The overwhelming majority of police interactions don't involve force, said Bowman, who focuses on race and criminal justice. Too often, he argued, the analysis of police violence only focuses on race and ignores other factors that might combine with race to contribute to police officers' behavior, such as the type of vehicle a person drives and other symbols of class status.

"I would definitely argue race and class matter," Bowman said. "If you were in a three-piece suit and African American, it doesn't mean that you won't necessarily have a negative experience, but the likelihood that it would result in death probably goes down dramatically."

Even though deaths at the hands of police are relatively uncommon compared to other deaths, they matter greatly, Bowman added.

"[When] those that are charged with protecting and serving are taking lives, and ... it's done in an unjustified way, that's a fundamental concern," he said. "Within the larger criminal justice system, I would argue it's the equivalent of a wrongful death penalty conviction, right? In the grand scheme of things, it may be a small percentage of the time that it's incorrect, but it matters to the ones that were put to death."

--Editing by Alanna Weissman.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.

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