In this special edition of the Police Accountability Report, Taya Graham and Stephen Janis discuss what this extrajudicial killing says about the continued emphasis on militarized policing and how its ongoing evolution is both anti-democratic and fundamentally destructive.
Production/Post-Production: Stephen Janis
Taya Graham: Hello, my name is Taya Graham, this is Stephen Janis, and we are your hosts of the Police Accountability Report and we are here with a breaking news update. The Memphis Tennessee Police Department has just released the body camera video of the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols. The body camera video that we are about to share with you is some of the most disturbing I have seen.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Police Officer 1: Get that motherfucker out.
Police Officer 2: [inaudible] your motherfucking ass.
Police Officer 1: You’ll get your ass blown the fuck off!
Police Officer 2: Get the fuck out of here!
Police Officer 1: Get the fuck ass out of fucking car!
Tyre Nichols: Man, I didn’t do anything.
Police Officer 2: Hey, you motherfucking asshole!
Tyre Nichols: Hey, I didn’t do –
Police Officer 3: Turn your ass around!
Tyre Nichols: All right, all right, all right, all right.
Police Officer 4: Get on the ground. On the ground!
Tyre Nichols: All right, all right, all right, all right, all right.
Police Officer 2: Beat your ass [crosstalk].
Tyre Nichols: Hey, you, you don’t do that. Okay?
Police Officer 3: Get on the fucking ground!
Tyre Nichols: Hey.
Police Officer 3: Get on the ground!
Tyre Nichols: Okay. All right, all right, all right.
Police Officer 4: I’m going to tase your ass!
Police Officer 1: Tase him! Tase him! Tase him!
Tyre Nichols: All right, all right, all right. I’m on the ground!
Police Officer 4: Lay down!
Tyre Nichols: I’m on the ground!
Police Officer 4: Right now!
Tyre Nichols: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Please [inaudible].
Police Officer 4: [inaudible].
Tyre Nichols: Okay.
Police Officer 3: I’m going to tase you if you don’t get on the ground.
Tyre Nichols: Stop.
Police Officer 3: I’m going to tase you.
Police Officer 4: Now.
Police Officer 3: Tase him!
Tyre Nichols: All right. Okay. All right!
Police Officer 1: Put your hands behind your back before I break your shit!
Tyre Nichols: Okay, dude. Dang.
Police Officer 1: And turn the fuck around.
Police Officer 4: Put your fucking hands [inaudible].
Police Officer 1: Bitch, put your hands behind your back before I break them!
Tyre Nichols: Okay. Stop. All right.
Police Officer 1: I’m going to knock your ass the fuck out!
Tyre Nichols: Okay. You guys are really doing a lot right now. Stop!
Police Officer 2: Bro, lay down.
Tyre Nichols: I’m just trying to go home.
Police Officer 2: Lay down!
Police Officer 3: Man, if you don’t lay down…
Tyre Nichols: I am on the ground!
Police Officer 4: Put your hands behind your [inaudible].
Police Officer 3: On your stomach!
Tyre Nichols: I am, please!
Police Officer 2: I’ll spray him. I’ll spray him!
Police Officer 4: Spray. Spray. Oh.
Police Officer 1: Get the fuck back.
Tyre Nichols: Stop! I’m not doing any… Stop.
Police Officer 1: Tase, tase.
Tyre Nichols: Fuck!
Police Officer 1: Tase!
Police Officer 3: Ah, shit.
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: The police statement said there was a confrontation and the suspect fled on foot. There was a second confrontation, he then complained of shortness of breath and was taken to the hospital for medical care. Stephen, when you look at the body camera video, what do you see?
Stephen Janis: Well, I see American policing. And I see a facet of American policing that politicians don’t want to acknowledge, that continues to go unabated even though we’ve been here before. I see an American policing where a person can be pulled over for nothing, a taillight, whatever, reckless driving, or there’s no evidence of that, and can end up dead. That is the American policing, particularly with the specialized unit as we’ll talk about later, being the SCORPION unit. What a name that is. I see American policing in full the way people need to see it to understand, that this underbelly policing when it deals with people of the working class and minorities and neighborhoods that are minority. It is horrible and it is ugly, and we need to see this.
Taya Graham: Very true. So we’re going to give you an overview, both of what we see on the body camera as well as some of what we see on the street camera. Tyre Nichols was kicked in the face and body at least three times. We then see an officer give multiple uppercut punches, sucker punching him, while Tyre is cuffed and under the full control of three other officers. The excessive force is obvious to see.
One of the officers kicked him so viciously that he injured his own leg and was limping afterwards, and complained of pain. You can hear another officer breathing heavy, sniffling. Obviously, the officers received a large dose of their own pepper spray in the process. You also see the officers standing around talking to each other afterwards, discussing the chase while he was propped up against the side of the car, cuffed.
These five officers were charged with aggravated kidnapping as well as second degree murder. The family attorney, Anthony Ramanucci, said that this was an act of terrorism. Stephen, I have to ask you, why do you think such incredibly aggressive actions, and even murder, can result from a simple traffic infraction, from a simple traffic stop?
Stephen Janis: Well, let’s watch the beginning of the video and show how the officers approach him to begin with. That is a uniquely American style of policing. In other words, something we call blanket criminality, presumption of guilt without presumption of innocence. And also, I think the actual unimpeded sense of empowerment and power, that if you don’t immediately, especially when you have people running at you, that you don’t immediately say and concede to their power, they will take unbelievably unlimited violent actions towards you.
And it reminds me of the case of Michael Banks in Trenton, New Jersey, when we had the body camera footage of another specialized unit attacking him in the same way. So people are going to react, and yet police presume that they own your body, and our rights don’t exist. We talk about this all the time. Was that a custodial stop? What was the probable cause? We see none of that in the video. Nothing that really gives us… Don’t you get that same impression?
Taya Graham: Absolutely. I was shocked by the initial aggression with which the officers approached the car. It was absolutely excessive from the very beginning.
Stephen Janis: And let’s move on now to the second part. So he escapes, because obviously he’s afraid. Did you get the sense of the… It was fear that prompted him to run, right?
Taya Graham: Oh, absolutely. As anyone can imagine, if officers approach your car aggressively, run, jump towards your car, then threaten to taser you, insist that you lay face down on the ground before you even know why you’re being pulled over, it’s understandable that this young man would flee in terror.
Stephen Janis: After he escapes with, again, no crime. And this is what’s interesting and what comes down to the kidnapping part, because they had no probable cause to put him in any sort of custody. So they find him, they chase him down about 80 yards from his mom’s home, and then we see that beating from the security camera that’s on a pole. And it’s horrific in its cruelty, and it is horrific in its duration.
Taya Graham: I was absolutely just devastated to not only see this officer kick him again and again and again in the head and body, but then to see, when he was completely under the control of three officers, had his hands behind his back, to see an officer essentially sucker punch him again and again. So, Stephen, you took a look at some of the information that was put out about his injuries. We saw on camera that he was kicked multiple times in the head and body. We saw that he received multiple blows to the head as well. He was tasered, he was pepper sprayed. What did you see in this information?
Stephen Janis: Well, it seemed to me that I saw some kidney injuries, which I think we had talked about would come from that really horrific kick. So kidney injuries. There must have been some internal organ injuries. It could have been kidney failure. And then they were talking about bleeding on the brain because –
Taya Graham: I think that was obvious. When you see that he has his hands behind his back, those three officers have him under control, and that one officer keeps punching him again and again in the face, in the skull. It’s not at all questionable why he experienced this type of severe injury. It’s horrifying. I can only imagine how difficult this was for his parents to watch.
Stephen Janis: Well, I think the question we have to ask is where is the justification for this use of brutality? In other words, we come to accept police being violent with us, but we never asked for the justification. In other words, saying, do we realize how insane it is that you’re kicking a young man in the head over nothing, over literally nothing? Not a crime?
Taya Graham: He was unarmed?
Stephen Janis: Unarmed. He’d not committed a crime. They said wild driving or whatever, reckless drive –
Taya Graham: The cause was possibly erratic driving.
Stephen Janis: But there was no evidence of that. And so then you’re kicking him in… So how does American policing, how does American society get from a young man sitting in a light in his car to kicking him in the head to death? And I think what we see here is the spectrum of American police force on the ugly side of the spectrum, that people who are like pro cop or say, we shouldn’t hold police accountable.
Taya Graham: I can only imagine those who are blue line supporters who we will hear most likely all over social media saying, well, he shouldn’t have run. I think we can understand why Tyre ran. He was fearful for his life, and obviously he was right to be.
Stephen Janis: And I don’t want to go too into depth. This is very reminiscent of a case we covered in Anton Black –
Taya Graham: Oh, absolutely.
Stephen Janis: …Who was scared of this very brutal cop who a town hired, that shouldn’t have hired, who had kicked someone in the head, and he ran. And he ended up dead over nothing, again.
Taya Graham: Absolutely.
Stephen Janis: Yeah. So I mean, I think you see in the whole spectrum of how American police deploy violence in this country. And then we’re like, why are we such a violent country? Why are people so upset with police? Or, why do cop watchers stand out and record police? Well, this is why. Because had there been a couple cop watchers sitting out there with cameras, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. I hate to say that, but I think maybe this gives us a reason why some of these guys go out, women and men go out and record cops. Maybe if there had been cop watchers out there, maybe this wouldn’t have happened.
Taya Graham: So Memphis police chief, Cerelyn Davis, said that this was a failing, a moral failing. And that this was absolutely casting aside Tyre’s humanity. I was really surprised to see how quickly the police department responded, how quickly they fired these officers. And also that charges were brought against these officers in under 20 days. They moved very quickly on this. What do you think is the impact of Chief Davis’s words and the swiftness with which they moved?
Stephen Janis: Well, I think you have to answer the question, why the hell did she have a unit called SCORPION in an American neighborhood? In a neighborhood of American citizens who have Constitutional rights, put a unit called SCORPION running around, five or six people in plain clothes when we know –
Taya Graham: Obviously, very aggressive cops.
Stephen Janis: It was heartbreaking to hear the audio from the video, and they just seemed like they were –
Taya Graham: And calling out for his mother. It was –
Stephen Janis: But the language they were using, the way they were treating him.
[VIDEO CLIP BEGINS]
Tyre Nichols: Mom! Mom!
Police Officer 2: Give me your fucking hands, bitch.
Police Officer 1: Get your hands, bro.
Police Officer 2: Give me your fucking hand.
Tyre Nichols: I didn’t do anything. [inaudible].
Police Officer 2: Hey, give your hand. Give me your hand. Give me your hand.
Police Officer 4: Hey.
Tyre Nichols: Mom!
Police Officer 2: Watch out, watch out.
Tyre Nichols: Mom!
[VIDEO CLIP ENDS]
Taya Graham: Calling out for his mother. It was –
Stephen Janis: But the language they were using, the way they were treating him. But that’s America. When you see the kid sitting there and his head drops and he’s dying. And they were –
Taya Graham: Stephen, I’m so glad you brought that up. When Tyre was bleeding, cuffed, propped up against the car. And he falls over, the officer says, Oh, he’s really high. He must be high. Already either fabricating an excuse or just essentially dismissing his pain, as if his injuries weren’t apparent. I was shocked by that.
Stephen Janis: Yeah. Well, think about transformative police custody, as in the custody of our criminal justice system. It is a prelude to tyranny. But not just tyranny, but cruelty, because he ceased to be human. If they’ve seen a person who wasn’t under arrest sitting there like that, they might have provided medical attention. But the fact that he was in handcuffs, suddenly he’s not worthy of medical attention.
That is the American criminal justice system. That is the way it works. It is cruel. The minute you cross that transom, it is just a fulcrum of cruelty. And I think we see that really starkly. And that’s why they were so quick. This was an invention of the Memphis Police Department, the SCORPIONs, whoever the hell they are, didn’t come out of thin air. And that chief had to sign off on that. So the first question is, what were the SCORPIONs, and why did you decide this was the way to police people?
Taya Graham: Stephen, I know you’ve had a lot of experience investigating organized crime units like this.
Stephen Janis: Yeah.
Taya Graham: The SCORPIONs are not the first time you’ve been introduced to a vice unit like this. And especially, have you noticed that these units often get caught up in the most aggressive actions against the public?
Stephen Janis: Well, yeah, because they’re told to be disruptive. They’re told to do things that the law doesn’t really prescribe. They’re told to act outside the law, then they’re romanticizing… And they are usually the heroes of endless hours of propaganda or copaganda. So I think they have a feeling that they are a military occupying force in a hostile country and that the people that they’re dealing with are not human beings with rights and Constitutional rights, but just rather some sort of mass of criminals that have been conceptualized by the mainstream media, that they’re there to somehow be the barrier between civilization…
And really they are the precursor of non-civilization. Because it’s like they rip the Constitution up and eat it for breakfast. Just to watch the way they treated him. But that’s the way our system is. When you get put in those handcuffs and you cross that transom into jail, you no longer are a human being in our system. You are not. And if you don’t believe it, then watch what happened to that young man.
Taya Graham: So Stephen, one thing I noticed is that whenever there’s a conversation around police reform, what we can do to make policing better, very often it is said community policing can begin when the officers reflect the community. Meaning that the officers who are policing the community should look like the community. But in this case, this was five Black police officers who are involved in the killing of a young Black man. So I have to ask, what does that tell you about the culture of policing?
To me, this says that the culture of policing creates a bond that is beyond Black or that’s beyond white. It is a blue brotherhood. And Stephen, you’ve taken a really long investigative look at this. What have you seen? What have you learned?
Stephen Janis: I think it tells you that a lot of policing is about class along with race, but class is also a very important unifier for policing. Because as long as you’re in a certain class or perceived not to be part of the elite power structure, we can do whatever we want with you. And if you’re an agent of that power, it doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white, you can deploy it any way you want.
Taya Graham: Stephen, I’m so glad that you wanted to ask these questions about this unit, because one of the things that came out was that there had actually been complaints [about] force against this unit before. And what did internal affairs do about these complaints?
Stephen Janis: No. Well, supposedly the guy said he told Ben Crump, the lawyer, that he called him twice and they never called him back. Well, we know what that’s about. Like we were saying, Michael Banks and Trenton filed a complaint. We can’t find out what happened to the complaint about the officers. Did exactly the same thing to him, it just didn’t end so horribly. I mean, when he was still taken to the ground and arrested and injured and he suffered tremendously, but thankfully he got out alive. But he might not have. So we need to ask these questions, and we will continue to ask them.
Taya Graham: And of course, Tyre Nichols family, despite the fact that Chief Davis spoke out so early and fired these officers, and despite the fact that the DA charged these officers so quickly, they still have a long fight ahead of them for justice and accountability. And there is still an ongoing investigation into the medics who did not render aid in a timely fashion. We promise to keep you updated and to continue looking into this story. And we certainly send our love and support to all those in Memphis, Tennessee, right now. And of course, the Nichols family.
My name is Taya Graham, this is Stephen Janis, we are the Police Accountability Report. Thank you for watching, and be safe out there.