- The video of 29-year-old Tire Nichols being beaten by Memphis police was released Friday.
- Legal experts told Insider that the footage showed police confronting Nichols with force, even though he initially did not resist.
- He may have run from the officers because he thought he needed to to save his life, lawyers said.
Content Note: This story describes police brutality, death, and contains graphic videos.
The video released Friday of five Memphis police officers brutally beating Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop clearly showed police misconduct and a breakdown in protocol for arresting someone, legal experts told Insider.
The violent footage was taken during a Jan. 7 traffic stop in Memphis, Tennessee, and was released days after the five officers were all charged with second-degree murder, among other charges. Nichols, who was 29, died of his injuries on January 10. Police said Nichols was stopped on suspicion of reckless driving, but later said there was no evidence to support the allegation.
Before the video was released, the Memphis police chief called it “abhorrent” and “inhumane.”
“What I saw was absolutely police misconduct,” Joshua Ritter, a Los Angeles criminal defense attorney, former prosecutor and partner with El Dabe Ritter Trial Lawyers, told Insider about the footage. “What I saw is never the way that five fully trained officers would try to arrest a person.”
The videos showed an officer approaching the car after pulling Nichols over and immediately telling him to “get the hell out of the damn car.” After Nichols exclaims that he didn’t do anything, an officer pulls him out, throws him to the ground and says “I’m gonna take your ass.” Nichols then stands, struggles with an officer and runs after the officer deploys his taser.
As he runs, an officer can be heard saying: “I hope they step on his ass.”
Ritter said it was “absolutely clear” that “there was either a breakdown in training and protocol or a complete lack of training and protocol that these officers had to begin with.”
“There is no reason why five officers should have to reduce themselves to closed fists to subdue a suspect who does not appear to be violent back, but at worst could be said to be disobeying their orders,” he added.
He added that it was hard to believe that the five officers would not have been able to arrest Nichols safely, without resorting to physical blows. “It’s almost like they’re trying to get his compliance by attacking him,” he said.
Los Angeles-based civil rights attorney V. James DeSimone agreed that the police’s treatment of Nichols from the beginning of the interaction was excessive, adding, “all of this could have been avoided if the police had treated this young man with respect in the initial incident” rather than with a “physical confrontation” and threats.
All of the lawyers Insider spoke to said Nichols initially seemed accommodating but was met with force anyway, raising questions about why he ended up running away, which could be interpreted as him resisting arrest and used to argue that they were just tried to non-compatible person comply.
“They came in hot. They came right in and beat him even though he was very compliant,” Matthew Barhoma, a criminal defense attorney and founder of Power Trial Lawyers and Barhoma Law, told Insider. “Then he resisted. And that begs the question: Why did he resist? It’s very likely that he resisted because he felt the need to save his life.”
Ritter agreed, adding that “the natural human instinct might be to resist when five people are essentially knocking you down.”
Barhoma said he was “shocked” by the footage, adding that when the charges were announced he thought it might be a case of “overzealous prosecution” but that after the video he clearly sees how this could be a case of police brutality.
Whether the officers’ conduct clears the high bar for second-degree murder is another question.
“I think the second-degree charge is probably high, and it’s going to be difficult for them to determine,” Barhoma said, adding that he thought manslaughter charges might have been more appropriate.
Ritter agreed that the manslaughter charges would be difficult to prove, but that given all the context — the video showing, by force, Nichols being pulled over on suspicion of a non-violent offense — prosecutors could prove it.
However, Neama Rahmani, president of West Coast Trial Lawyers and a former federal prosecutor, said there was no doubt that the manslaughter charges are appropriate.
“I’ve prosecuted police officers. I’ve seen police officers jailed. I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “This is probably one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.”