Officers were not in danger and brutality had no justification, advocates and experts say
Legal experts and civil rights advocates have said the harrowing video footage that showed a group of Memphis police officers delivering blow after blow to Tyre Nichols underscores the need for broad reforms of policing in the US.
Experts interviewed by the Guardian pointed out that body-worn and surveillance footage was integral in revealing what unfolded – but are not a panacea.
“At the end of the day, that final video shows someone being beaten and abused like he’s in a pinball game. It’s like the ball is just being knocked from one end to the other,” said Randolph McLaughlin, professor at the Elisabeth Haub School of Law and co-chair of the Newman Ferrara civil rights practice.
“What’s most shocking about it all is the brutality and then at the end, the complete dehumanization of this man. He’s not even human to them – he’s not even a person,” McLaughlin said. “It’s as if they just went and played a baseball game and they talked about what happened afterward. There’s absolutely no excuse for this.”
Nichols, 29, was beaten by police after a traffic stop on 7 January and died three days later. Footage of the beating was released on Friday.
McLaughlin said that in many police shooting cases, officers will make the argument that it “is a rapidly evolving situation, a split-second decision had to be made, it was my life or his” but the Memphis officers could not make any such claim. “That man was defenseless. Defenseless.”
The actions of the officers, McLaughlin said, underscored the need for a far broader approach to reform. “This man wasn’t a criminal. He was just trying to get home to his mother. That’s all he was trying to do. If he can’t do that, none of us are safe,” McLaughlin said. “It shows we need a national standard.”
“The police chief in Memphis has taken a very aggressive stance. There’s no question that she’s taking this seriously,” McLaughlin said. “The problem is, what’s happening in Mississippi, what’s happening in New York City, every city, every state.”
“These are not crimes that are being committed in isolation,” McLaughlin also said. “Black and brown men, and poor people, are being treated in this fashion.”
The video provided shows a cohort of officers deliver numerous blows against Nichols, 29, as he languishes against the pavement, crying out for his mother. Nichols is punched, kicked, and struck with a baton.
When the officers who beat Nichols drag him to a police car, and prop him against the side, his grave physical condition deteriorates for more than 20 minutes before an ambulance arrives on scene. Nichols, the father of a four-year-old boy, died on 10 January.
Five officers involved in the incident, who are Black, were fired last week. They have been charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression in the death of Nichols.
The Memphis Police Department chief CJ Davis announced on Saturday that she was disbanding the unit whose officers fatally beat Nichols. They were part of what was called the Scorpion unit, which had several teams of approximately 30 street officers who pursued violent offenders in areas with high crime rates, the Associated Press said.
“It is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the Scorpion unit,” Davis reportedly said, saying the decision was made after listening to Nichols’ family, community members, and officers who were not in the unit. Other police in the unit who were not involved in the incident “agree unreservedly” with the decision, Davis said.
Earlier, New York City’s Legal Aid Society said in a statement the footage “underscores the epidemic of police violence that continues to plague communities of color nationwide”.
“This is indeed a systemic crisis, overwhelmingly impacting Black men, and each of these tragedies deepens the wounds of racial trauma that all Black people are forced to shoulder,” the office said in a statement. “We must continue to question the police’s role in society, as these incidents frequently recur, and many more happen all the time without being captured on body-worn cameras.”
Sanford Rubenstein, the veteran New York City civil rights attorney who represented Abner Louima and the family of Sean Bell, said “the extensive video is pictures of the truth” which will be used to prosecute these officers.
“You don’t have one bad apple— you have five officers engage in a horrific beatdown which resulted in death,” Rubenstein said, later adding, “If you try to look into the minds of [these] police, they obviously believed they could do what they did with impunity.”
Rubenstein also pointed out that Nichols’ death has retraumatized those who have endured police violence. “One of the elements in this tragedy is the effect that it’s had on many victims of police brutality,” Rubenstein said. “This now brings back [memories] to their families, especially the families of those who died – they relive them, as they see the video and all the news coverage of this video.”