The officers claimed to have stopped Nichols for reckless driving.[a] They removed him from his motor vehicle and deployed pepper spray and a taser on him. During the incident, Nichols managed to escape temporarily. When officers recaptured Nichols, they assaulted him for about three minutes, punching and kicking him in the head and striking him on the back with a baton while he was restrained.
The preliminary results of an autopsy commissioned by Nichol's family and released on January 23, found "extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating". The five officers were arrested on January 26 and charged with murder, kidnapping, assault, and misconduct. Three firefighters – two emergency medical technicians and a lieutenant – who attended the scene were relieved of duty and subsequently fired for failing to conduct an adequate patient assessment of Nichols. Two other police officers were also later relieved of duty and one of them was fired. The sixth officer who was fired, who is White, had been involved in the initial traffic stop and tasing but not in the subsequent filmed beating.
On January 27, the MPD released four clips of edited video from January 7, showing various events between 8:24 p.m. and 9:02 p.m.; the release of this police body camera footage plus surveillance footage were followed by widespread protests.
Nichols was raised in Sacramento, California, and moved to Memphis in 2020. According to his family's attorney, Nichols was "almost impossibly slim" due to Crohn's disease, and weighed 145 pounds (66 kilograms) at a height of 6 feet 3 inches (1.91 meters).
The five Black Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers at the traffic stop each had two to six years of police experience. Four of the five had previously either been reprimanded or suspended by the department for various offences. All five were members of an MPD 30-person specialized hot spot policing unit known as SCORPION (an acronym for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods). SCORPION was assembled in October 2021 to deal with serious crimes, and was disbanded in the wake of the incident. SCORPION unit officers drove unmarked cars and many dressed in plainclothes and wore bulletproof vests marked "Police".
Video 1 – police body camera footage, first detainment
Video 2 – pole-mounted camera footage, second engagement
Video 3 – police body camera footage, second engagement
Video 4 – police body camera footage, second engagement
Nichols was two minutes away from his home when he was stopped by MPD at 8:24p.m. on January7, 2023. Body-worn camera footage shows that Nichols' car was stopped in the left-turn lane on Raines Road near the intersection with Ross Road, with police vehicles surrounding his car on three sides. Body-worn camera footage also shows "officers can be heard discussing his alleged driving, 'swerving' and nearly hitting one of them". The body-worn camera footage released by the City of Memphis on January 27, does not "show any activity earlier than an officer responding to a stop in progress ..."
At the traffic stop, officers pulled Nichols out of his car as he said: "I didn’t do anything." An officer shouted: "Get on the fuckin' ground ... I'm gonna tase your ass." Officers pushed Nichols to the ground. At about 8:25 p.m., a struggle began between the officers and Nichols; they attempted to force Nichols to lie on his stomach on the ground and to put his hands behind his back, while threatening him, yelling expletives, and using pepper spray and a taser on him. The pepper spray also hit several of the other officers. Ultimately, Nichols broke free and ran south on Ross Road, where he was pursued by at least two officers. Two more police units arrived at the scene around 8:29p.m. Footage showed that one officer who remained at the area of the traffic stop said, "I hope they stomp his ass".
Officers caught up to Nichols at 8:33p.m. at Castlegate Lane and Bear Creek which is approximately a half a mile (800 meters) away from the original traffic stop. He was then beaten for three more minutes. Body camera footage showed an officer shouting to Nichols: "I'm going to baton the fuck out of you." After that, officers pulled Nichols to a standing position and restrained his hands; during this time, Nichols was repeatedly punched in the face by officers, and eventually, he fell to a kneeling position. Within the next minute, Nichols was kicked by an officer. The footage shows at least five punches to Nichols's face.Fox News reported that, in the videos, "Nichols can be heard calling out to his mother before police beat him into a daze".The New York Times reported that Nichols "does not appear to ever strike back" at the officers.
By 8:37 p.m., Nichols was handcuffed and limp; officers propped him against the side of a police car. After Nichols was on the ground, the involved officers convened and shared their stories about the arrest. One officer bragged: "I was hitting him with straight haymakers, dawg", while another exclaimed: "I jumped in, started rocking him."
Medics arrived around 8:41 p.m. but did not begin to assist Nichols until 16minutes later. An ambulance arrived at 9:02 p.m. and took Nichols to St. Francis Hospital at 9:18p.m. after he complained of shortness of breath.
On scene, video footage showed officers issued at least 71 commands over 13 minutes; The New York Times described the orders as "often simultaneous and contradictory", "sometimes even impossible to obey", citing an example where the officer who struck Nichols with a baton was shouting "Give us your hands!", but another officer was already manipulating Nichols' handcuffed arm; then when an officer shouted: "Give me your fucking hands!", Nichols had one officer pinning his arms behind his back, a second officer holding his handcuffed wrist, and a third officer was punching Nichols' face.
On January 8, the department stated that the traffic stop of Nichols was due to reckless driving. On January 27, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis stated that her department reviewed footage, including from body cameras regarding the traffic stop and the arrest, to "determine what that probable cause was and we have not been able to substantiate that – ... It doesn't mean that something didn't happen, but there’s no proof."
A police report was written two hours after Nichols was beaten. The police report claims that in the first encounter, Nichols was irate and sweating profusely when he left his vehicle, refused to be detained, with pepper spray and a Taser stun gun ineffective on Nichols. For the second encounter between Nichols and police, the report claims that Nichols resisted arrest by grabbing an officer's duty belt and another officer's vest, ignored their orders, leading to officers using pepper spray and striking Nichols with a baton; Nichols was eventually taken into custody after "several verbal" commands.
The released videos did not corroborate the police report's claim that Nichols "started to fight" with officers, or even that he had been violent at all. The released videos also did not corroborate the officers' claim that Nichols reached for their weapons. Seth Stoughton, a law professor and use-of-force expert, noted that an officer typically shouts it out immediately if they see a suspect reach for a weapon, and none did so in the videos of their struggles with Nichols. The initial police report did not state that officers had punched and kicked Nichols.
No death certificate with an official cause of death for Nichols or an official autopsy report has been issued by the Shelby County medical examiner's office as of February 1, 2023.
Preliminary findings of an autopsy commissioned by his family found that Nichols "suffered excessive bleeding caused by a severe beating".
By January 24, two Memphis Fire Departmentemergency medical technicians who were on scene had been relieved of duty without further explanation. A week later, a total of three MFD employees had been fired – the two EMTs and a lieutenant – for failing to conduct a proper patient assessment and treatment, a break in policies and procedures.
On January 30, authorities announced that two other police officers, Preston Hemphill and an unidentified officer, had also been relieved of duty. On February 3, it was announced that Hemphill had also been fired. Hemphill, who is White, had been involved in the initial traffic stop and tasing but not in the subsequent filmed beating.
On January 26, the Grand Jury of the State of Tennessee indicted the five MPD officers and presented the following findings: murder, second-degree; aggravated assault; aggravated kidnapping; aggravated kidnapping with a deadly weapon; official misconduct, harming another; official misconduct, refraining from performing a duty imposed by law; official oppression.
On January 27, the police body-worn camera video footage of the incident was released to the public. Chief of police Davis stated that officials intentionally "decided it would be best to release the video later in the day after schools are dismissed and people are home from work" due to concern over the civil unrest that might result after its release.
Various police officers reacted to the death of Tyre Nichols. Police Chief Davis released a video statement where she said, "This is not just a professional failing. This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual." On January 27, in an appearance on Good Morning America, she said, "In my 36 years, [...] I would have to say I don't think I've ever been more horrified and disgusted, sad" about the video, and it was "still very unclear" as to why the officers stopped Nichols.New York City Police CommissionerKeechant Sewell, denounced what she called "disgraceful actions", while Chicago Police Superintendent, DavidO. Brown, called the video "horrific". On the day of the video's release, FBI Director Christopher Wray said he was appalled by the video, and Patrick Yoes, the national president of the Fraternal Order of Police, stated that "The event as described to us does not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong. This is a criminal assault under the pretext of law." New York City Mayor Eric Adams, a retired captain from the NYPD, told the press that the White House had briefed him and other mayors on the video ahead of its release and that it would "trigger pain and sadness in many of us. It will make us angry."
The Legal Aid Society of New York City released a statement that included, "We must continue to question the police's role in society, as these incidents frequently recur, and many more happen all the time without being captured on body-worn cameras." On January 29, Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin said, "We need a national conversation about policing in a responsible, constitutional and humane way. These men and women with badges put them on each day and risk their lives for us. I know that, but we also see from these videos horrible conduct by these same officers in unacceptable situations."
The Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation issued a statement that stated, "Although the media has spent a great amount of time drawing attention to the fact that the police officers are Black, as if that is important, let us be clear: all police represent the interest of capitalism and impel state-sanctioned violence. Anyone who works within a system that perpetuates state-sanctioned violence is complicit in upholding white supremacy."
After Nichols's death, Chief Davis called for a review of the SCORPION unit, and the unit was disbanded on January 28.
A GoFundMe fundraiser was created by family members of Nichols that states "We want to build a memorial skate park for Tyre, in honor of his love for skating and sunsets". By January 29[update], the GoFundMe raised nearly US$1million.
^On January 8, the MPD said Nichols had been stopped for reckless driving. Video recordings from the incident do not capture any of Nichols' driving or other actions before the stop. Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis later stated, "We've looked at cameras. We've looked at body-worn cameras. Even if something occurred prior to this stop, we've been unable to substantiate it. We've taken a pretty extensive look to determine what that probable cause was and we have not been able to substantiate that. It doesn't mean that something didn't happen, but there's no proof."