Last week, the city of Memphis released 21 hours of audio and video recordings that shed additional light on what happened immediately after police brutally beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols during a routine traffic stop last year. He later died of his injuries.
The recordings, which include surveillance videos and police body-worn camera footage, were made public after a media coalition — represented by Paul McAdoo, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative attorney for Tennessee — successfully challenged two court orders prohibiting the city of Memphis and Shelby County from disclosing public records they provided to the district attorney in the prosecutions of five former Memphis police officers charged with Nichols’s murder.
The video footage made public in late January provides context to recordings released last year showing police officers punching and kicking Nichols while he pleaded for them to stop. Many of the new videos capture the interactions of police officers and paramedics in the immediate aftermath of Nichols’s arrest. According to news reports, some of the recordings show police officers appearing confused about why they pulled Nichols over and offering conflicting accounts about how Nichols responded to the officers’ orders.
Last month’s disclosures mark the second time in the last couple of months that local government officials have released records in response to the legal challenge McAdoo brought on behalf of the media coalition, which includes the Associated Press, The Daily Memphian, The Commercial Appeal, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, journalist Marc Perrusquia, The New York Times, CNN, WREG-TV, WMC-TV, and WATN-TV/WLMT-TV.
Nichols’s beating in January 2023 reignited a nationwide debate about police brutality and racial justice. It also prompted federal investigations into the Memphis Police Department, including a criminal civil rights probe and a “pattern or practice” inquiry examining the department’s use of force and its stops, searches, and arrests. The latest disclosures have not only refocused the public’s attention on Nichols’s death, they have also reminded the public why the fight for access to police recordings is worth waging.
“Access to body-worn camera footage and other videos that show the actions of police officers is critically important to the public’s ability to hold law enforcement accountable. In some cases, such recordings are the only source of information about police officers’ conduct,” McAdoo said. “We urged the court to rescind the closure orders in this case to ensure that the body-worn camera videos and other records previously kept from the public can be used as effective tools for transparency and police accountability.”
The fight for transparency
McAdoo began representing the media coalition last March, shortly after the Shelby County Criminal Court entered two separate orders preventing the release of certain records related to the criminal cases of the five former Memphis police officers who are charged with Nichols’s murder.
The first order, issued orally from the bench, prohibited Shelby County from disclosing the personnel file of one of the five former officers who had previously worked as a correctional officer for the county. The second order, issued in writing on March 8, 2023, prohibited the city of Memphis from releasing “videos, audio, reports, and personnel files of City of Memphis employees related to this indictment and investigation.” The March 8 order came after the city said that it had planned to disclose additional records tied to Nichols’s death.
On behalf of the media coalition, McAdoo challenged both orders.
“We urge the court to vacate the two gag orders issued in this case, which unconstitutionally restrict access to important information that could otherwise be released related to a case of significant public interest,” McAdoo said after he filed the media coalition’s motion to intervene. “Such orders not only threaten the press and public’s First Amendment interests, but also hinder the transparency that’s essential to fostering trust in our judicial system.”
Last November, Judge James Jones, Jr. partially rescinded the two orders, allowing the city and county to release many of the records sought by the news organizations. Shelby County officials acted first, turning over personnel records that showed that one of the officers charged with Nichols’s murder had previously faced accusations of excessive force while he worked as a corrections officer. He was later cleared of wrongdoing.
Roughly two months later, the city of Memphis released the 21 hours of audio and video recordings from the night of Nichols’s arrest.
What we learned from the latest videos
The release of the new videos generated widespread news coverage. Much of the reporting has focused on what the recordings reveal about the conversations between police officers and paramedics immediately following Nichols’s arrest, some of which took place as Nichols sat handcuffed and propped up against a car with blood covering his face.
According to news reports, the officers struggled to articulate what prompted them to pull Nichols over. The officers also at times contradicted one another when discussing how Nichols responded to their orders. In one video clip, for example, an officer said Nichols appeared high on drugs and that he tried to reach for an officer’s gun, while another clip shows a different officer describing Nichols as “very polite while resisting.” None of the video footage released to date shows Nichols resisting arrest or reaching for a weapon.
Other video footage reportedly captures conversations between officers who were apparently not involved in Nichols’s arrest. In those discussions, according to news reports, officers mentioned their concerns about the SCORPION street crime unit that the arresting officers belonged to. As CNN reported, one officer described the officers in the now-disbanded unit as “adrenaline junkies,” to which another officer replied, “Very much so.”
To learn more about the contents of the videos, check out coverage from the Associated Press, The Daily Memphian, The Commercial Appeal, The New York Times, CNN, WREG-TV, WMC-TV, and WATN-TV. You can also visit the city’s website to access all of the newly released videos. Viewer discretion is advised.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.