“It is tragic to see a life cut short at 29, with so many milestones unmet, so many words unsaid, and so much potential unfulfilled,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, who leads the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, at a press conference on September 12. 2023, announcing the indictment of five former Memphis, Tennessee police officers in connection with Tyre Nichols’ death. “Tyre Nichols should be alive today.”
On January 7, 2023, Nichols was living with his parents in Memphis. He had moved back to Memphis from California at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. His stepfather had helped him secure a job at FedEx working alongside his stepfather. Nichols became a very popular employee with FedEx during his nine months with the company.
There was promise in Nichols’ young life. He loved skateboarding and photography.
“Photography helps me look at the world in a more creative way,” he wrote on his photography page. “It expresses me in ways I cannot write down for people.”
That love for photography placed him in harm’s way on the evening of January 7, 2023. He was returning home from a trip to Shelby Park where he loved to go and take photographs of the evening sunsets. His mother was home, frying chicken in the special way he liked.
The young man was just two minutes from home when Memphis police officers pulled him over for alleged “reckless driving.” As police officers approached his vehicle, Nichols jumped out of his car and ran toward his home calling out to his mother. The officers pursued and apprehended him.
Nichols explained to the officers that he was just trying to get home. He told them that he worked at FedEx. The officers were in no mood to listen. They were in a psyched-up mode to inflict pain. That was evidenced by what one of the officers told Nichols once they had him in custody—a statement recorded on officers’ bodycam footage:
“I’m going to beat your ass” and “I’m going to tase your ass” as several officers then on the scene held him to the ground.
In a calm voice, Nichols says, “you guys are really doing a lot now” before he manages to break free and run away as an officer was about to deploy his stun gun.
The officers were really in a rage then. They caught Nichols, threw him to the ground, and as two officers restrained him, a third officer started kicking him. Their appetite for pain was not satiated. The officers picked Nichols up from the ground and held him while others beat him about the face and torso.
Nichols collapsed to his knees with the officers standing over him. Another officer ran into the scene and drop-kicked the badly beaten Nichols. The officers then dragged his crumpled body to the street, where they stood him, still handcuffed, against a police vehicle.
Nichols remained in that position for roughly 20 minutes before any of the officers attempted to give him first aid. When the officers began administering first aid, EMS personnel arrived and carried him away in an ambulance.
Throughout the brutal ordeal, Nichols yelled out to his mother and pleaded, “what did I do?” while the officers pepper sprayed, beat, kicked, tased, and struck him with batons. It was a savage display of unspeakable, almost indescribable brutality and cruelty by a pack of rogue cops trying to kill an unarmed, handcuffed, defenseless man.
When the ambulance got Nichols to the Memphis St. Francis Hospital, he was in critical condition, complaining of shortness of breath. Hospital officials immediately contacted the Shelby County District Attorney’s Office and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) requesting a use-of-force investigation.
The TBI immediately opened an investigation.
Three days later, Tyre Nichols died from the brutal beating administered by officers of the Memphis police department.
On January 18, 2023, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee announced that the FBI and U.S. Justice Department would investigate Nichols’ death.
The Memphis Police Department did not wait for the results of that investigation. Two days after the federal announcement, the department fired five officers involved in the brutal beating death.
On January 26, 2023, a Shelby County grand jury indicted the five officers on charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping resulting in bodily injury and use of a weapon, official misconduct through unauthorized exercise of power, official misconduct for failure to act when there is a legal duty to act, and official oppression.
Over the next two weeks, two members of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department and three members of the Memphis Fire Department EMS staff were also fired for their roles in the Nichols beating death. Seven other Memphis police department officers were placed under disciplinary investigation.
On September 12, 2023, a federal grand jury indicted the same five officers indicted by the state grand jury on deprivation of civil rights, conspiracy, and obstruction of justice charges. In response to the indictment Attorney General Merrick Garland told the American public:
“The country watched in horror as Tyre Nichols was kicked, punched, tased, and pepper sprayed, and we all heard Mr. Nichols cry out for his mother and say, ‘I’m just trying to go home,'” said Attorney General Merrick B. Garland. “Officers who violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect undermine public safety, which depends on the community’s trust in law enforcement. They dishonor their fellow officers who do their work with integrity every day. The Justice Department will continue to hold accountable officers who betray their oath.”
As of August 28, 2023, Tyre Nichols was just one of the 639 civilians killed by the police in the country this year. His killing was probably one of the most methodical, premeditated acts of violence committed by the police against citizens this year—a murder comparable to the one committed against George Floyd. Both men were black, as are a disproportionate number of the people killed by the police each year in this country.
Two years ago, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies stopped Christopher Bailey, a Black man. They began to assault him, calling for backup to assist in the assault. The pack of sheriff’s deputies literally beat, kicked, and stomped Bailey beyond recognition. The LA County Board of Supervisors, on September 13, 2023, agreed to pay Bailey $4.5 million to settle his lawsuit against the county. All the deputies escaped criminal charges, and it remains unclear if they were even reprimanded, much less disciplined, for their criminal actions.
Christopher Bailey barely escaped death at the hands of the police. Tyre Nichols did not. These two cases represent the police’s new definition of “protect and serve.”