The Wrongful Death of Tyre Nichols and What It Means For America

Posted by

By: Veda Keon, Staff Writer

Tapping through my Instagram stories on February 10th, I felt my heart drop as I was met with the smiling face of Tyre Nichols on each new story. “Say his name” was plastered under each post; it was another black man unjustly killed at the hands of the police. 

The events of Tyre Nichols’ death are details that America is tragically familiar with. Nichols was pulled over at approximately 8:30 pm on January 7th for “suspected reckless driving” on his way home from taking pictures of the sunset in a nearby park. Body camera footage released by the Memphis Police Department shows five officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Desmond Mills and Emmitt Martin III, all from a specialized unit named Scorpion – pulling Nichols out of his car while shouting contradicting orders and profanities at him. Nichols attempted to flee the interaction after officers pepper sprayed and attempted to tase him, but was followed on foot. After officers regained control of Nichols, he was treated like what one of his family’s lawyers describes as “a human piñata.”

Footage from a street light overlooking the horrific scene captured the five officers brutally kicking, punching, and beating Nichols as he calls out for his mother. His cries continued to ring out as medical assistance eventually arrived. It was several minutes after this when he was finally taken onto a stretcher and brought to the hospital. Tyre Nichols died three days later.

The events of the murder of Tyre Nichols are nothing new when we consider the interactions between police and black men. However, there is one key factor that’s different between this case and others that have gripped the nation- the offending officers are also black. 

Race, however, is still a factor in this violent murder, and only highlights the issues in the American police system. There is an unfortunate pattern amongst police that extreme bias and dehumanization caused by systemic racism that is pervasive enough to affect even the minds of minority officers, causing them to internalize the idea that black men are inherently dangerous. In an interview with AP News, Memphis advocate Josh Adams states that “it’s not the color of the officer, it’s the color of those being policed” that causes systemic violence. “That’s what creates the difference.” The systemic racism in this country has manifested itself as the conditioning of officers to view black men as needing to be policed strongly, regardless of the color of an officer’s own skin. 

Tyre Nichols, Obituary Portrait || Dignity Memorial

The five officers involved have been charged with a number of offenses, including second-degree murder and kidnapping. Despite this, it is notable that the officers – all black – were fired and charged remarkably quickly in comparison with other white officers involved with police brutality and murder. The white officers involved in the murder of George Floyd, for example, were convicted in July of 2022, two years after Floyd’s murder. The five officers responsible for Nichols’ murder, on the other hand, were fired on January 20th and charged on the 25th, less than 10 days after the attack. 

Whether this is due to the officer’s skin color, a desire to handle the case as quickly as possible due to the considerable amount of media pressure, or another reason only the prosecutors are aware of, it cannot be denied that the swift action is a change of pace from the usual handling of offending officers. 

This raises the question: is the Memphis Police Department engaging in too much damage control? In wake of the murder, two EMS workers and a fire lieutenant have also been relieved of duty for the initial treatment of Nichols. Was this fair, or was a non-fireable offense blown out of proportion in an attempt to make the MPD look like they’re compensating for the egregious actions of the officers?

Lt. Michelle Witaker || MFD, Twitter
JaMichael Sandridge || MFD, Twitter
Robert Long || MFD, Twitter

The EMS workers arrived on scene with the information from the officers that they were going to be handling a pepper sprayed person, which only requires the person’s eyes to be rinsed. Upon arriving and realizing they were not dealing with a pepper sprayed victim, a proper ambulance was called.

The EMS did not attempt to perform a full assessment of Nichols in the 12 minutes it took for the ambulance to arrive, which appears to be due to a lack of training, not malicious intent. While it was improper of the EMS to not attempt to assess Nichols, they may have found it unnecessary, as there is limited care they could give a man who has just been beaten to death without a stretcher or neck brace, neither of which they were equipped with without an ambulance. 

So, placing blame on the EMS is not a wise move. Speculative language like “if the EMS acted differently, Tyre Nichols might not have died” is extremely dangerous because it is unprovable. It places blame on more people than those who truly deserve it and creates a mob mentality that can result in disproportionate, unnecessary action, like firing three workers for something that would usually only result in a reprimand. Firing the EMS personnel was the fastest and easiest way for the department to handle the interaction and it’s disheartening to see that institutions opt to quickly just get rid of the problem. Instead of these institutions acknowledging and fixing their shortcomings, such as reform and better education, they would rather cut ties and be done with whatever the issue is with real no change. 

It places blame on more people than those who truly deserve it and creates a mob mentality that can result in disproportionate, unnecessary action.

Institutions aren’t the only issue when it comes to these cases. A lack of information given to the public has allowed for conspiracy, one in particular having gained a substantial amount of traction. An unknown source online began spreading the rumor that Nichols had been involved with officer Haley’s ex-girlfriend and mother of his child. The chatter grew louder and louder with people using it as a justification for his death, evidence that the police can’t do their job without bias, or people simply trying to spread misinformation. The rumor was backed by the fact that Williams was pulled over in the middle of the road by a specialized task force, whose job was not to monitor traffic, as well as the fact that Haley took and sent two photos of the beaten and cuffed to a civilian woman. Some have claimed that this alleged civilian woman was Haley’s ex-girlfriend and were sent as a sort of warning and that Nichols had been targeted by the officers of this specialized unit. This claim was rebuked by Nichols stepfather, who stated that his “son was not messing around with one of the officer’s wives” and that it’s “just a rumor,” continuing on to say  that “nobody mentioned nothing about no girlfriend… they started beating an unarmed man.” 

Lawyers on either side could benefit from this rumor. Nichols’ lawyer is able to use it to get the charges moved to first degree murder, while the lawyers of the officers are able to tarnish Nichols’ reputation. While the evidence for this rumor is flimsy at best, even if it was true, it serves only as a distraction from the larger issue at hand: the rampant police brutality. Every major story about police brutality had some form of unsavory rumor spread about the victim almost in an attempt to justify what happened. This isn’t just harmless gossip and it’s important to remember that even if what’s being said about Nichols was true, those officers still would have no right to kill him over it. 

A Candlelit Memorial for Nichols || Scott Olsen/Getty Images

The policing system in America cannot continue on the way it has been. The systemic racism that exists at core undermines the police’s job to keep every American safe. Parents should not have to teach their young children what to do if they’re ever in an encounter with the police to make sure they aren’t killed. People shouldn’t have to live in fear of the officers supposed to keep them safe. Excusing the judgements police make based on prejudice and racial profiling should no longer have a place in America and police reform needs to happen. America can’t keep going through this endless cycle of police brutality, followed by the people in charge firing those involved as a PR save, without actually changing anything. There’s a lack of education in the police system, with the average six months of training not being enough time to make sure officers are fully prepared for the high stress situations officers face in their line of work. This is an extremely important, demanding job and a start to fixing the policing system comes with better, longer education.