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Memphis Police Beating Video Compared to Rodney King Incident

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Katie Riordan/WKNO-FM
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Rodney Wells, stepfather of the late Tyre Nichols, and civil rights lawyer Ben Crump (left) address reporters and the public soon after watching video footage of police beating the 29-year-old motorist.

The family of Tyre Nichols has agreed to delay the release of video purportedly showing Memphis Police beating the 29-year-old man after he ran from a traffic stop.

At a press conference Monday at Mt. Olive Cathedral CME Church in Downtown Memphis, the family's lawyers said they wanted to give the District Attorney's office, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the FBI time to finish investigating the incident without jeopardizing any potential criminal charges that may be brought.

Using words like "appalling," "deplorable" and "troublesome on every level," the prominent civil rights attorney Ben Crump compared the video footage seen for the first time today by family members to the infamous 1992 Rodney King beating by L.A. police.

"And unlike Rodney King, Tyre didn't survive," Crump added.

A fuller picture emerged about the Jan. 7 incident, which has been short on specifics since the embargo on official information stemming from ongoing internal investigations.

Lawyers say Nichols can be heard asking "What did I do?" at a traffic stop for reckless driving near his home. They say uniformed police officers then escalated a confrontation. Nichols fled on foot. They say he can be heard on the video calling out for his mother several times before being caught by police, about 80 yards from his home.

"He was a human piñata for those police officers," said co-counsel Antonio Romanucci. "It was an unadulterated, unabashed nonstop beating of this young boy for three minutes. That is what we saw in that video."

Nichols died three days later at St. Francis Hospital in East Memphis. Attorney Crump says an independent autopsy is being conducted by Dr. Allecia Wilson, one of the pathologists hired by the family of George Floyd following his death in police custody, also captured on video.

Family members reiterated that Nichols would have presented an unlikely threat to officers. He worked for FedEx, enjoyed skateboarding, photography, and spending mornings at Starbucks. Though he was tall, his struggles with Crohn's disease contributed to his slender build at about 145 pounds. Romanucci described him as "defenseless."

His stepfather, Rodney Wells, said the family had been asked repeatedly why his son ran from the police.

"He ran because he was scared for his life," Wells said. "And when you see the video, you will see why he was scared for his life."

Five police officers involved in the incident were fired last Friday. And ahead of Monday's press conference, two members of the Memphis Fire Department were also relieved of duty related to the emergency treatment of Nichols. That investigation is continuing.

In a statement, District Attorney Steve Mulroy said releasing the footage immediately could compromise the ongoing investigations. Crump said local authorities have committed to release the "multiple" videos in under two weeks. It is not clear how many or what types of videos were seen.

The attorneys were cautious about providing too many details, but mentioned the use of kicking, a Taser, pepper spray and restraints. Police originally reported that Nichols was hospitalized for "shortness of breath," but photos from his hospital bed the morning after the incident show him unconscious on a bloody pillow with a breathing tube and his eyes swollen shut.

"You should not be killed because of a simple traffic stop," Crump said. "We have to make sure there is justice for Tyre because we want to prevent this from ever happening again... We don't want next week to see another video of a Black person losing their life because of a traffic violation."

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Family of Tyre Nichols
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Reporting from the gates of Graceland to the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, Christopher's favorite haunt is the intersection of history and cultural change. He is WKNO's News Director and Senior Producer at the University of Memphis' Institute for Public Service Reporting. Join his conversations about the Memphis arts scene on the WKNO Culture Desk Facebook page.