Newly released videos from the city of Memphis, Tennessee, appear to shed light on the reason why Tyre Nichols was initially stopped by police last year – an encounter that eventually led to his death and sparked fresh protests over how police in America treat people of color.
Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was violently and repeatedly punched and kicked by officers following a traffic stop and brief foot chase on January 7, 2023. He later died from blunt force trauma to his head.
In police body-camera footage released Tuesday, then-officer Preston Hemphill tells other officers Nichols was initially pulled over on suspicion of speeding.
In a conversation captured on the body-worn cameras of two officers, Officer Samuel Lively asks Hemphill why Nichols was originally stopped, and Hemphill replies, “Speeding, and an improper lane change.”
In a statement released last January, Memphis Police said Nichols had been pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis later told CNN authorities had not “been able to substantiate” the probable cause for why Nichols was pulled over.
When asked for comment on the videos released Tuesday, police officials replied, “As standard practice, the Memphis Police Department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.”
The officers’ interaction on the bodycam video continues with Lively suggesting Nichols could be charged with evading a vehicle, but Hemphill cuts him off saying, “You can’t do evading a vehicle, because that means it was a pursuit.” Hemphill continues, “You can get him for resisting arrest, fleeing on foot, which is a misdemeanor, speeding and improper lane change. That’s at least four.”
In the footage, Hemphill describes the initial traffic stop, telling Lively Nichols was “politely resisting” the officers’ orders.
“Dude was very polite while resisting, I’ll give him credit,” Hemphill says in the video.
“We were telling him ‘get on the ground!’” Hemphill says, adding Nichols replied, “‘OK officers I’m getting on the ground.’ But he wasn’t doing sh*t,” Hemphill says.
Minutes later, Hemphill’s body camera was recording as Lively and another officer asked him if Nichols might have been on anything because of his strength.
“Hell yeah, he was strong. It took the three of us and we could barely get him to the ground till I persuaded him to kneel,” Hemphill says in the video.
According to the bodycam video, an hour after the initial traffic stop and about 15 minutes after an ambulance had taken Nichols to the hospital, Nichols’ parents approached Hemphill at the intersection where he was first pulled over and where his car was still sitting to ask what had happened.
“We tried pulling over your son. He ran from us. We found him at this red light, pulled him over again. He started fighting with us, and took off, he got pepper sprayed and took off running,” Hemphill tells Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, and his stepfather on the bodycam video.
The video then shows Hemphill walked away from the conversation with Nichols’ parents to answer a phone call from someone whom he described as his lieutenant. He can be heard saying, “I really don’t even know any more. So, we tried pulling him over with speeding, lane changes and then he started fighting us when we pulled him over … I don’t know if they found anything on him or not.”
Hemphill then returned to Nichols’ parents and told them, “I’m a CIT officer so I specialize in people who – not saying that they have substance abuse problems, stuff like that – but from the way he was fighting, he had to be on something,” according to the bodycam video.
Toxicology testing on Nichols detected the presence of chemicals associated with marijuana and alcohol use, according to documents obtained by CNN affiliate WMC. Nichols’ blood alcohol content was 0.049, which is below the legal limit of 0.08 in Tennessee.
Then-officer, Demetrius Haley, who was with Hemphill during the initial traffic stop as well as part of the group that violently beat Nichols, approaches the parents and tells them, “I’ve never seen nobody act like this. I believe something was in his system. Because he had unbelievable strength. I mean we had to pepper spray him and tase him,” according to the bodycam video.
Haley is among five former Memphis officers charged in relation to Nichols’ death. Haley, Tadarrius Bean, Justin Smith and Emmitt Martin III have all pleaded not guilty to state charges, the most serious being second-degree murder. They were also indicted on federal civil rights charges in September.
The fifth former officer, Desmond Mills Jr., pleaded guilty to two of four federal charges in November, federal prosecutors said. He also agreed to plead guilty to the state charges and testify against the other defendants, prosecutors said.
Memphis officers discuss special police unit and its alleged tactics following Nichols’ beating
An officer on patrol can be heard discussing the now disbanded SCORPION police unit implicated in the assault.
In a video clip recorded from an officer’s patrol car, she discusses the unit and its tactics with another individual who also appears to be an officer.
An officer can be heard saying, “I feel like they’re a little too…”
“Hands on,” the other officer responds.
The first officer goes on to say, “They’re kind of like adrenaline junkies.”
The second officer replies, “Very much so.”
The second officer also appears to reference how officers treated Nichols after his arrest over allegations of speeding and an illegal lane change, saying, “Dude, pepper spray, taser (inaudible) … it’s not even a felony. You gotta be smarter, bruh.”
The SCORPION unit, launched in 2021, was tasked with tackling rising crime in the city. It was disbanded after Nichols’ death.
CNN’s Paul P. Murphy, Shawn Nottingham, Pamela Kirkland, Eric Levenson, Isabel Rosales and Devon Sayers contributed to this report.
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