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Police experts say Tyre Nichols' arrest was filled with procedural violations

People rally Friday in Times Square in New York City to protest the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols earlier this month in Memphis, Tenn.
Yuki Iwamura
/
AFP via Getty Images
People rally Friday in Times Square in New York City to protest the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols earlier this month in Memphis, Tenn.

Many across the country have been reeling from the newly released footage of Tyre Nichols' arrest. Among those most shocked are former police officers and criminal justice experts who say that very little of the arrest went by protocol.

"All the actions here, from the very first interaction, really, run counter to how we expect officers, how we train officers to behave," said Ian Adams, a professor in the department of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina.

"It's hard to find reason in what seems incredibly unreasonable," Adams told NPR.

On Jan. 7, Nichols, a 29-year-old Black motorist, was pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving in Memphis, Tenn., and aggressively beaten by police. He died in a hospital three days later.

Videos released Friday evening by the city of Memphis showed that officers dragged Nichols from his car on the night of the traffic stop. They also shouted profanities throughout the confrontation. At one point, an officer tried to deploy a Taser at Nichols and then began chasing him on foot. "I'm just trying to go home," Nichols could be heard saying on the videos. Officers repeatedly kicked, punched and used a baton to strike Nichols as he lay on the ground.

Five officers involved that night have been fired, arrested and charged with murder. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis saidthe five officers violated multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid.

The traffic stop was unusual

Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, described the initial traffic stop as "highly unusual" for a variety of reasons.

"It was not a normal traffic stop," he told NPR. "They were not in marked vehicles, they were not wearing normal police uniforms, and they pulled him out of the car, got him down on the ground and pepper-sprayed him."

The officers involved were not on typical patrol duty. They were part of a specialized unit known as Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION. The unit was launched in 2021 to reduce violent crime and the number of violent hot spots in the city.

Sue Rahr, the former sheriff of King County, Wash., who was on President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, saidthat specialized squads can develop an aggressive culture that sees their work as a kind of war where "everybody in the neighborhood" is the "enemy."

Adams from the University of South Carolina also pointed out that the officers were unusually young and inexperienced to be in a specialized unit.

The amount of force used was unwarranted

Police are generally trained to use a reasonably necessary amount of force to accomplish an arrest, but the police officers involved went "far beyond that," Stinson said.

"They did not really seem to have an interest in getting him handcuffed, they seemed to have an interest in giving him a beating," he said.

Officers are supposed to use the least amount of force necessary to bring somebody into custody, but Stinson said the use of force quickly escalated into deadly territory.

"All of the blows to the head were the application of deadly force," he said.

Such extreme measures are only supposed to be used when there is reasonable belief that it was immediately necessary in order to protect an officer or another person from a threat of death or serious bodily injury.

"That certainty wasn't the situation here," Stinson said. "This was somebody that they could have taken into custody, in handcuffs, very quickly had they chosen to do so."

Other police officers should have intervened

Stinson said police officers have a legal and moral obligation to intervene if another officer is using excessive force. But in the videos, it appeared that there was very little intervention from surrounding law enforcement.

Shortly after the arrest videos were made public, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said that two deputies who arrived at the scene had been relieved of their duties pending an internal investigation.

Earlier this week, two Memphis Fire Department employees who were "involved in the initial patient care" of Nichols were also"relieved of duty" pending an internal investigation, a department spokesperson said.

Stinson noted that officers have a duty to render medical aid, but the footage showed very little medical support from medical personnel or officers. It took more than 20 minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

"There's a lot of things that could have been done at a very basic level without any sophisticated equipment, but you didn't see anybody trying to render aid, trying to comfort him," Stinson said. "Every now and then, he'd fall over and they propped him back up."

He described the lack of care as a "complete callous disregard and indifference to the value of human life."

NPR's Martin Kaste contributed reporting.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.