Tyre Nichols killing: Anger and outrage leads to calls for policing reform in US

Biden and Trump criticise attack by police officers on 29-year-old motorist which is set out in horrific video footage released at the weekend

“I am just trying to go home.”

The phrase uttered by Tyre Nichols after he was pulled from his car at a traffic stop and subsequently beaten to death will probably be linked to the words “I can’t breathe”, spoken by George Floyd, another American killed by a law enforcement officer, when historians of the future assess police brutality in the United States.

Video footage released on Friday night of five police officers in Memphis, Tennessee severely beating Mr Nichols (29), who died a few days later, has raised questions once again about police training, culture and supervision in the country.

Videos, taken from police body-worn cameras and from one on a lamp post – which were released by authorities in Memphis – have generated shock and anger across the United States.


However, most protests which have taken place over the weekend have been peaceful and the potential riots and violence – which had been feared at the highest levels – did not come to pass.

The video footage, which ran overall to about an hour, showed Mr Nichols being pulled over by police in Memphis, allegedly for reckless driving – although no evidence of this has emerged so far. Shortly after his car comes to a halt, police can be heard shouting profanities and threats and ordering him out.

“I didn’t do anything”, he says, and later adds “I am just trying to go home.”

A scuffle ensues and Mr Nichols breaks free and runs away. Police officers deploy pepper spray and a taser in an unsuccessful bid to stop him. Some of the pepper spray blows back into the eyes of the officers.

Police radio to colleagues that Mr Nichols has run away and a search for him begins.

“I hope they stomp his ass,” one of the officers can be heard saying.

A few minutes later and about 100 metres from his mother’s home, Mr Nichols is apprehended by police.

Footage from a camera on a lamp post shows some officers seeking to restrain him while another kicks him in the head.

An officer pulls out an expandable baton and strikes Mr Nichols several times. He is also punched on a number of occasions.

In the body camera footage, which also has audio recording capability, Mr Nichols can be calling in distress for his mother.

No officer intervenes to stop the attack on Mr Nichols who is subsequently left slumped against a police car.

Shortly afterwards, two paramedics arrive while police chat among themselves. Twenty minutes or so later an ambulance arrives and Mr Nichols is taken away.

Five Memphis police officers, who are black – as is Mr Nichols - have been sacked and charged with second degree murder. On Friday night two other officers from a nearby sherriff’s department, who were also on the scene, were placed on paid leave.

On Saturday the Memphis police department said it had disbanded the specialist force, known as a scorpion unit, which patrolled high crime areas, to which the five officers belonged.

The scenes recorded in the footage have led the Biden administration to again call for policing reform in the United States, which was originally proposed after the killing of Mr Floyd by an officer in Minneapolis in 2020 but never implemented.

Mr Biden said he was “outraged and deeply pained” to see the video footage of police beating Mr Nichols .

“Those who seek justice should not to resort to violence or destruction. Violence is never acceptable; it is illegal and destructive. I join Mr Nichols’ family in calling for peaceful protest.”

The president had been concerned the footage would lead to violence and even riots, possibly along the lines of those in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago after police officers were acquitted of attacking another African American man, Rodney King.

The White House held talks on Friday with the mayors of several cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, about the potential for violence.

However, while there were protests over the weekend in a number of areas, by and large they were all peaceful. Demonstrators in Memphis blocked a big motorway bridge for a time on Friday night.

On Saturday, former president Donald Trump described the footage of the attack on Mr Nichols as “horrible”.

“I thought it was terrible. He was in such trouble. He was just being pummeled. Now that should never have happened,” Trump said in an interview with The Associated Press

Mr Trump’s remarks were notable as in the past he made comments that appeared to encourage the rough treatment of people in police custody. In a speech in July 2017, he urged police not be “too nice” in their treatment of gang members.

A lawyer who acted for Mr King in Los Angeles in 1991 at the weekend described police in the Memphis vidoes as “walking around like a pack of wolves”.

However, some on the political right in the United States argued that those condemning the police over the death of Mr Nichols did not have the same views about Ashli Babbitt, a woman who was shot dead by security officials when supporters of Mr Trump attacked the US Capitol on January 6th 2021.

Some policing analysts questioned why there was no more senior officer on the scene with the members of the scorpion unit at the time of the assault on Mr Nichols.

Mr Biden told reporters he would again urge the US congress to pass police reform legislation which had been put forward after the death of Mr Floyd, but which he maintained had been blocked by his Republican opponents in the US senate.

This legislation, which was passed by the House of Representatives, would have banned chokeholds, prohibited racial and religious profiling and redirected funding to community-based policing programmes as well as changing qualified immunity rules for police officers, which would make it easier for people to pursue claims of misconduct.

It is unclear as yet whether Republicans, who now control the House of Representatives, will take up the issue of police reforms following the death of Mr Nichols.