On Jan. 7 in Memphis Tennessee, Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was beaten for three minutes by five police officers who pulled Nichols over for reckless driving. Nichols died in the hospital three days later. The police officers were fired and charged with federal civil rights, conspiracy and obstruction offenses. On Nov 2, former Memphis Police officer Desmond Mills Jr., pleaded guilty to two felony charges: one charge of obstruction of justice and one charge of excessive force. As part of his plea deal, Mills must fully cooperate with federal prosecutors and testify against his former fellow officers. The Catalyst researched the timeline of this case.
Note: The following paragraph contains descriptions of graphic police brutality and violence.
At 8:24 p.m. on Jan. 7, Nichols was stopped at a traffic light for “reckless driving.”Memphis Chief of Police Cerelyn Davis has not been able to confirm the motive for pulling Nichols over, however. In video footage released by the Memphis Police Department (MPD), officers forced Nichols to the ground while shouting at him. As seen in the footage, the officers shouted 71 commands in 13 minutes. The officers used a stun gun and Nichols fled while the officers chased after him. Three more officers arrived at the scene for backup and tackled Nichols 60 feet from his mother’s house. Nichols shouting for his mother can be heard in the video. Nichols was sprayed with a chemical substance in his eyes and beaten with batons and kicked. At 8:37 p.m., Nichols was handcuffed and placed in the back of one of the officer’s vehicles. The medics arrived at 8:41, but first aid was provided 16 minutes after their arrival. Nichols was taken to the St. Frances Hospital at 9:18 p.m., where he died three days later.
On Jan. 18, the United States Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee announced that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Department of Justice (DOJ) were investigating the killing. The five officers, Mills, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith, were fired on Jan. 20 and a statement from the Memphis Police Department stated that “after a thorough review of the circumstances surrounding this incident, we have determined that five MPD officers violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid.”
The autopsy was released on Jan. 26 and a grand jury indicted the five officers involved. On Jan. 30, two more officers were relieved of duty and on Feb. 17, all officers pleaded not guilty. On Feb. 7, former police officer Haley’s phone revealed texted photos of bloodied Nichols at the scene. He admitted to sharing this photo with five other people, which violates the Police Department’s policy on confidential information. A later interview revealed that Haley also sent the image to a sixth person, a female acquaintance.
According to the Memorandum and Plea Agreement: Statement of the Facts, from the Western District of Tennessee, “On Jan. 7, 2023, defendant Mills and Bean were riding in their patrol car when defendant Mills heard a call for assistance with a suspect who was running and who had been pepper-sprayed and tased. Defendant Mills saw the suspect, later identified as Tyre Nichols, walking and using his shirt to wipe his face. Bean jumped out of the patrol car and chased Nichols, who started to run… Officers told Nichols to give them his hands. Rather than grab Nichols’ hands to handcuff him, Bean and Smith struck Nichols. Defendant Mills struck Nichols with the baton, even though he knew that the use of the baton under the circumstances was inconsistent with MPD training and policy. Nichols’ passive resistance did not justify defendant Mills’ use of the baton to strike Nichols.”
In his sworn statement, Mills admited to not revealing to medical personnel that Nichols had severe head injuries, and instead he and his fellow officers claimed that Nichols was high on drugs. “Martin used hand signals to warn defendant Mills that his body-worn camera was still running. Defendant Mills momentarily stopped discussing the force officers had used on Nichols and removed his body-worn camera. Defendant Mills placed his body-worn camera on the back of a patrol car and took a few steps away to have what he believed was an off-camera conversation with the other officers who had participated in the assault.”
Mills was indicted on two counts of deprivation of rights under color of law, a legal term used to refer to a government authority illegally overstepping its power. The offenses carry a maximum life sentence and with Mill’s neglect of ensuring Nichols received medical aid and the assault on Nichols, the maximum seems likely. Mills is also charged with two counts related to witness tampering and obstruction of justice, both of which can carry up to 20 years in prison.
In a New York Times article describing Mills’ plea, “on Thursday, standing in a Memphis courtroom, Mr. Mills showed little emotion as he pleaded guilty.” Mills will be sentenced in May.
According to the Institute for Health Metrics, in the years 1980-2018, Black Americans were estimated to be 3.5 times more likely to experience fatal police violence than White Americans. Further, researchers have estimated estimated that the US National Vital Statistics System (NVSS), which is the government system that records all death certificates in the United States, failed to accurately classify and report more than 17,000 deaths as being caused by police violence during the 40-year study period. However, this estimate does not take into account when police officers used violence for self-defense.