MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — One year ago, Tyre Nichols was driving home to have dinner with his family when he was pulled over by Memphis police who claimed the Black man was driving recklessly and yanked him out of his car.
Officers hit him with a stun gun and pepper sprayed him, but he managed to get away and tried to run home. Five officers caught up with him just steps from his house, and, as he called out for his mother, they kicked him, punched him and hit him with a police baton. The attack was captured on the officers’ body cameras and a stationary police pole camera.
Nichols died in a hospital of his injuries three days later on Jan. 10, 2023. His death shook Memphis to its core and led to impassioned protests throughout the U.S. On Sunday night, Nichols’ family members and their supporters gathered at the site of the beating to remember the life of the father, FedEx employee, skateboarding aficionado and amateur photographer who was taken from them at the age of 29.
More than 100 people held candles that flickered in the chilly Memphis air as they heard Nichols’ mother, stepfather and three siblings talk about how difficult the past year has been for them. His mother, RowVaughn Wells, recalled how her stomach began hurting the night of the traffic stop, not knowing that her son was being beaten just steps from her house.
Wearing Converse sneakers her son gave her last Christmas, Wells cried as she talked about missing her son.
“Regardless of wherever my kids are, they’re going to call me, they’re going to come by if they’re close enough,” Wells said. “This year, I didn’t get that from Tyre. I didn’t get a phone call. I didn’t get a text message. I didn’t get a ‘Merry Christmas.’ I didn’t get none of that from my baby this year.
“That’s the most hurtful thing because he used to try to be the first one to call,” Wells said. “’Mama, was I the first one to call you today?’”
Nichols’ beating was one in a string of instances of police violence against Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and the need for police reform in the U.S.
His death also led to serious repercussions for the Memphis Police Department and the city. Seven officers were fired for violating department policies during the traffic stop and beating, while an eighth was allowed to retire before he could be fired.
Five of the fired officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — were charged with second-degree murder and other offenses in state court, and with civil rights violations in federal court. The five officers are Black.
Mills pleaded guilty in November to federal charges of excessive force and obstruction of justice. The plea is part of a larger deal in which prosecutors said he had also agreed to plead guilty later to state charges. The four other officers have pleaded not guilty to the state and federal charges.
The officers said they pulled Nichols over because he was driving recklessly, but police Chief Cerelyn “CJ’ Davis has said no evidence was found to support that allegation.
An autopsy report showed Nichols died from blows to the head and that the manner of death was homicide. The report described brain injuries and cuts and bruises to the head and other parts of the body.
After Nichols’ death, the crime-suppression unit the officers were part of was disbanded. Former members of the so-called Scorpion team have been assigned to other units within the police department.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation in July into how Memphis police officers use force and conduct arrests, one of several “patterns and practices” investigations it has undertaken in other cities.
In March, the Justice Department said it was conducting a separate review concerning use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialized units in the police department.
The police department, the city and the former officers are also being sued by Nichols’ mother in federal court. Filed in April, the $550 million lawsuit blames them for his death and accuses Davis of allowing the Scorpion unit’s aggressive tactics to go unchecked despite warning signs.
Also last year, the Memphis City Council approved several ordinances in the wake of Nichols’ death, including one preventing traffic stops for minor infractions. News outlets have reported that then-Mayor Jim Strickland sent a letter to the council in December saying he did not enforce the ordinances because he believed they were illegal.
New Mayor Paul Young, who took office Jan. 1 after Strickland’s two terms expired, told media on Tuesday that he would enforce the ordinances.