President Joe Biden has urged potential demonstrators in Tennessee to maintain calm as authorities prepare to release police bodycam footage of an arrest that resulted in the death of a black motorist.
Video of the encounter that lead to the death of Tyre Nichols, will be released sometime on Friday evening (27 January), and will show him being severely beaten for three minutes, according to family lawyers, who likened the assault to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles driver, Rodney King.
“Regrettably, it reminded us of the Rodney King video,” said lawyer Ben Crump. “And unlike Rodney King, Tyre didn’t survive.” Nichols, a 29-year-old father, FedEx worker and avid skateboarder, died on 10 January in hospital, authorities said.
In connection with Nichols’ death, five dismissed Memphis police officers have been charged with murder and other offences. The officers, who are all black, each face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told a news conference that although the officers each played different roles in the death of Nichols, “they are all responsible”. Here is everything you need to know.
Until footage of the incident is released, the exact nature of what happened is not 100% clear. Police have said Nichols was arrested after officers stopped him for reckless driving.
In a news release the day after his arrest, the police department said that as officers approached the vehicle, “a confrontation occurred” and he ran. It said officers caught up to him and that “another confrontation occurred” while they were taking him into custody.
Police said he complained of shortness of breath and was admitted to hospital. Officials said a cause of death has not been determined.
Relatives have said the officers who pulled over Nichols were in an unmarked vehicle and that he experienced cardiac arrest and kidney failure from the officers beating him. Authorities have only said that Nichols experienced a medical emergency.
Who are the officers who have been charged?
Five former Memphis police officers have been charged with second-degree murder and other crimes over the arrest and death of Nichols.
Shelby County Sheriff’s Office online records show that Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III, and Justin Smith were in custody. All five are charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.
Defence lawyer William Massey confirmed to The Associated Press that his client, Emmitt Martin III, had been charged and had turned himself in. He and Mills’ lawyer, Blake Ballin, said their clients would plead not guilty. Lawyers for Smith, Bean and Haley could not be reached.
Second-degree murder is a class A felony punishable by 15 to 60 years in prison under Tennessee law.
What is the ‘Scorpion’ unit?
Some of the five officers accused of killing Nichols were a part of the prestigious ‘Scorpion’ crime-fighting squad, which is now falling under intense scrutiny.
Scorpion stands for "Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighbourhoods," and is a 50-person unit tasked with reducing crime rates in specific areas. With a focus on high-impact crimes like car thefts and gang-related offences, it was introduced in October 2021.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland praised the Scorpion programme in a statement made a year ago. He said the city analysed crime data "to determine where the unit will conduct its enforcement activities within the city".
But the unit has been the subject of controversy, and some neighbourhood activists claim that its focus on the city’s crime hot spots encourages racial bias and aggression among the police. A review of all specialised police units has now been ordered by the police chief.
Antonio Romanucci - an attorney for the family of Nichols - accused the unit of misconduct in the most recent occurrence. “They were in unmarked cars, why are they conducting traffic stops?” he told CBS. “This is a pretextual traffic stop, which, let’s call it what it is, it’s a racist traffic stop.”
What will happen when the video is released?
President Joe Biden has urged potential demonstrators in Tennessee to maintain calm as authorities prepare to release police bodycam footage of the incident.
Nichols’ mother has warned supporters of the “horrific” nature of the video, but she pleaded with supporters to “protest in peace”.
“I don’t want us burning up our city, tearing up the streets, because that’s not what my son stood for,” she said. “If you guys are here for me and Tyre, then you will protest peacefully. You can get your point across but we don’t need to tear up our cities, people, because we do have to live in them.”
City and community leaders have expressed concern about the possibility of civil unrest following the video’s release, and Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, has said that the family hopes that any protests remain peaceful.
State Representative Antonio Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, said the predominantly black city has been on edge since the arrest, which he called “horrific and senseless”.
Van Turner, president of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP, also acknowledged that Memphis appears tense as it waits for the video. But he praised the city and the police department for taking “quick action” in sacking the officers.
“We will continue to monitor and support a fair and just resolution to this matter,” he said. “We join the call for peaceful protests as we all work towards making sure that proper measures are put in place to prevent this type of incident from occurring in the future.”
Turner also said that the potential for unrest could be higher if the officers who were involved were white, but “if the video is significantly more egregious than what we have seen, then the unrest could still be there.”
The video has not been released sooner, as investigators did not want to risk compromising the investigation, according to Shelby County district attorney Steve Mulroy. The US Justice Department has opened a civil rights investigation into the arrest, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is looking into whether excessive force was used.