In the latest slew of police brutality against Black Americans, the death of Tyre Nichols has yet again fueled demand for police accountability across the nation. As we grapple with the tragedy of his loss, it’s worth zooming in on the laws and policies governing how the People can respond when officers use deadly force on citizens.
Here’s how the facts break down from a legal perspective.
Tyre Nichols was a 29-year-old father to a 4-year-old son. His friends and family recall his love for skateboarding. On January 7, 2023, police savagely beat Nichols following a traffic stop for reckless driving. Nichols died as a result of injuries three days later.
In videos released by the City of Memphis, we can put together a timeline of events demonstrating the increasingly brutal use of force by police officers. In the video, you can see the police:
At that point, he got up and attempted to run away as another officer tried to tase him. Once officers caught up with him, police became increasingly violent despite outnumbering and subduing Nichols. The video then showed Nichols screaming for his mother as officers continued to:
He was taken to St. Francis Hospital to receive treatment for his injuries following the assault. According to his autopsy, Nichols died three days later due to extensive bleeding caused by the severe police beating.
Sadly, this is a case of excessive police use of force.
Let’s start with some basic universally accepted principles governing police use of force against citizens. (Find a detailed description of use of force rules here.)
This is primarily to take someone into custody or to defend themselves and others against a reasonably anticipated threat of harm. The officers must have probable cause or reasonable suspicion to attempt to take the citizen into custody.
If there is no such cause (or threat of harm), no use of force is permitted. Any use of force under those conditions is unjustified, excessive, and unconstitutional.
Assuming probable cause, reasonable suspicion, or defense of self or others, officers may only use force to take a subject into custody. This means that force is not permitted to:
Each punch, each swing of a baton, each use of pepper spray, must be necessary under the totality of the circumstances known to the officer at the moment the force is applied. This depends mostly on the conduct of the subject.
What happened to Tyre Nichols can be broken down into four main events:
What we need to know: Did the officers have probable cause to pull Tyre Nichols over? If not, then everything that happens next is probably an unreasonable seizure.
The officers claimed Tyre was driving recklessly, but the Memphis police chief told the media there was no proof of that.
“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”, she said. Without such proof, all of the subsequent actions of the officers must be viewed skeptically.”
What we need to know: Did police have information about the driver or the car on the radio? What did they observe the driver or the car do? Do they have reason to believe there are weapons or illegal substances in the car?
They may be justified in unholstering their weapons if they have reason to believe the driver or passenger poses a threat. Very rarely would they be justified in approaching while pointing their weapons at the driver or a passenger as they approach.
An extended vehicle pursuit may provide sufficient cause for this. In Nichols’ case, the officers approached in a very aggressive manner, shouting commands at him, cursing, acting the way officers often react after a hair-raising pursuit when they’re flooded with adrenaline.
You often see this kind of behavior in excessive force cases.
The police description was reckless driving–not a pursuit. The exaggerated police reaction is not only unwarranted, but highly dangerous. It raises the tension and increases the chances that someone, officer or suspect or both, will end up hurt.
What we need to know: why did they pull him from the car? Remember: any use of force must be reasonably necessary to achieve a legitimate law enforcement goal.
In the video, Tyre is the calm one, speaking to the officers in measured tones, ensuring them he’s obeying their commands. The officers appear out of control, over the top, and highly agitated and aggressive.
There’s a mismatch here because there is no apparent reason for the officers to be this agitated.
Each passing moment supplies the officers with additional information, all of which they must use to determine their next steps, all of which constitutes the “totality of the circumstances” that will be used to evaluate the officers’ conduct afterwards.
Deadly force is a subcategory of police force. Generally, deadly force is permissible only when the officer reasonably believes such force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to themselves or others.
Police are trained to use force on a continuum, referred to as the Use of Force Continuum (UFC). The UFC ranges from cooperative controls to deadly force, with several de-escalation steps in between.
As its name implies, deadly force will likely cause death or great bodily harm. More often than not, it involves using a firearm, but it can also include chokeholds (which have been banned in many jurisdictions) and the use of blunt force objects to the head, such as a baton.
No. In the case of Tyre Nichols, deadly force wasn’t justified. Ultimately, the officers committed at least two violations of the law during his arrest:
Five former Memphis police officers have been arrested, booked, and charged with felonies that include second-degree murder. Bonds are set as high as $350,000. Attorneys for the officers say they will plead not guilty.
Two other officers were suspended after they failed to report in the daily activity log that they were on the scene following the traffic stop. Additionally, these officers didn’t activate their body cameras during the stop. However, the city of Memphis stated that there would be no charges against these two deputies.
Additionally, two emergency responders from the Memphis fire department were dismissed after a video showed they failed to provide medical care for Nichols for 19 minutes. In the video, Nichols fell to the ground multiple times, unable to stay upright against the side of a police vehicle. Nichols wasn’t transported to the hospital to receive medical care until 27 minutes after emergency responders arrived.
Joanna Schwartz, a professor at UCLA School of Law, says, “damages brought by the family of Tyre Nicholes will be settled quickly and for a substantial amount of money.” For context, similar lawsuits in cities like Minneapolis paid upwards of $27 million for the brutal death of George Floyd, while Louisville paid $12 million for the senseless death of Breonna Taylor.
But with only $1.25 million earmarked in the police budget for lawsuits and another $5 million lawsuit related to an encounter with the same officers pending, many are left to wonder: where will the money come from?
It’s possible that, as part of the settlement with Nichols’ family, there could be changes in the way police are trained to respond using de-escalation tactics. There’s precedent—as part of Louisville’s settlement with Breonna Taylor’s family, they promised policy changes regarding search warrants and handling emergency response calls.
The Memphis City Council is considering a raft of reforms in the wake of Nichols’ death, including calls for more transparency around the use of force data, access to body cam video, reformed hiring practices, and the implementation of a citizen review board.
It’s worth noting that Nichols’ death comes after a round of reforms in 2020 where Memphis pledged to revisit use-of-force policies following the death of George Floyd. The policies addressed include the duty to intervene to stop dangerous conduct by a fellow officer.
Police excessive force cases can be tricky to navigate. However, with an experienced attorney on your team, you can receive maximum compensation for your mistreatment.
If you think you or someone you know may have been a victim of excessive force, false arrest, or any other civil rights violation, contact Chicago civil rights lawyer Jordan Marsh for a free consultation at (224) 220-9000 or at email@example.com. Let’s discuss your civil rights complaint and find out if you have an excessive force claim.