The chief of the Memphis police warned on Friday that the video of officers beating Tyre Nichols is “perhaps worse” than the infamous footage of Rodney King being attacked by police in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago.
The police department intends to release the video to the public on Friday evening.
In her first interview since five officers were charged with murder on Thursday, the police chief, Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, told CNN that she was “outraged” after seeing the “alarming” video of the traffic stop of Nichols, 29, who died three days after a 7 January apprehension spiraled into a fatal physical attack.
Davis said there appeared to be no legitimate reason for the traffic stop, and that she did not see any of the five officers intervene to stop excessive force by their fellow officers, saying they appeared to be in a state of “groupthink” as they confronted Nichols and became violent.
“I was in law enforcement during the Rodney King incident and it’s very much aligned with that type of behavior … sort of groupthink. I would say it’s about the same if not worse,” Davis said in a live interview on Friday morning.
King barely survived on 3 March 1991, when he was beaten by officers from Los Angeles police department during an arrest after a car chase, with the violence caught on tape.
FBI director Christopher Wray said the bureau had opened a civil rights investigation.
“What happened in Memphis is obviously tragic. I’ve seen the video myself and I will tell you I was appalled,” Wray said on Friday morning. “I’m struggling to find a stronger word but I will just tell you I was appalled.”
Davis called for federal action to reform policing in the US, saying that the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act “should be part of this”, the legislation that is stalled in Congress and named after the Black man murdered by a white police officer who kneeled on his neck in Minneapolis in 2020, sparking a national and international civil rights uprising.
She said she has watched the tape and heard Nichols calling out for his mother as he was being beaten.
“That’s what really pulls on the heartstrings … why was a sense of care for this individual just absent?”
Also on Friday morning, RowVaughn Wells, Tyre Nichols’s mother, told CNN she “feels really sorry” for the five Black police officers, whom she said beat her son “to a pulp”.
“They have brought shame to their own families. They brought shame to the Black community. I just feel sorry for them. I really do,” she said.
“Because they didn’t have to do this. Once you see this video, and I know I didn’t see it, but from what I hear, it’s horrific. And the humanity of it. Where was the humanity? They beat my son like a piñata.”
At a press conference later that day, Wells urged parents not to let children watch the video later that night, which she herself would not watch but had been told was “very horrific”.
Antonio Romanucci, one of the attorneys representing Nichols’s family, called on Davis to disband the specialized police group known as the Scorpion unit which the five police officers were a part of and had been set up to reduce crime.
“These are suppression units, saturation units, but they end up as oppression units,” he said.
Van Turner, president of the Memphis branch of the NAACP, said that the police had committed the kind of crimes they are supposed to be fighting against.
Advocates called for swifter justice for violent police of any race.
“We are going to make sure that Tyre Nichols didn’t die in vain,” Turner said at the press conference, standing alongside a sobbing Wells and Nichols’s stepfather, Rodney Wells, who said the family was satisfied with the charges against the officers and called for peaceful protest.
The officers had been fired and were charged on Thursday with various crimes including second-degree murder.
However, Davis said the fact the officers are Black “takes off the table that issues and problems in law enforcement [are] about race”.
“It is not,” she said. “It’s about human dignity, integrity, accountability and the duty to protect our community.” But she added: “It does indicate to me that bias might be a factor also in the manner in which we engage the community.”
Joe Biden appealed for calm as marches were planned in a host of US cities.
The US president called the Wells on Friday afternoon to express his personal condolences “and commend the family’s courage and strength”, the White House said.
Nichols died in hospital on 10 January from injuries sustained during the encounter.
The video to be released on Friday evening is expected to include footage captured by body cameras, as well as cameras mounted on the dashboards of police vehicles and security cameras on utility poles in the vicinity.
David Rausch, the director of the Tennessee bureau of investigation, said of the confrontation: “Let me be clear: what happened here does not, at all, reflect proper policing. This was wrong. This was a crime.”
Police officials initially said there was a confrontation when officers came toward Nichols’s car and then another after they arrested him.
Memphis police officials said the officers had flouted “multiple department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid”.
The recording showed Nichols “called repeatedly for his mother”, his family’s legal team said, throughout the beating, which took place about 100 yards from her home, family representatives told reporters.
“Tyre was brutalized by Memphis police, much like how Rodney King was beaten more than 30 years ago – but unlike Rodney, Tyre lost his life from this violent attack,” Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer on the family legal team, said after seeing the video.
Crump said the speed with which the Memphis officers were fired and charged should be “a blueprint for America”.