Family members said Nichols died of kidney failure and cardiac arrest on Jan. 10, three days after his encounter with the officers. A police spokesperson said officers pulled Nichols over for reckless driving and Nichols fled on foot before he was ultimately arrested.
“What I saw on the video today was horrific,” Nichols’s stepfather, Rodney Wells, said at a news conference Monday afternoon. “No father or mother should see what we had to see today. Justice for us is Murder One. Anything short of that we will not accept.”
The department has said it would release video footage of the arrest to the public after the family had a chance to view it, but has not provided a more specific timeline.
“A premature release could adversely impact the criminal investigation and the judicial process,” Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said in a statement Monday.
Nichols, 29, was a father of a four-year-old boy, a skateboarder and—like his stepfather—a FedEx employee who worked an afternoon-evening shift. After seeing the footage, his stepfather said he believes Nichols fled officers at the traffic stop because he feared for his life from him at the hands of police.
Attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the family, said of the footage: “It is appalling. It is deplorable. It is beautiful. It is violent.”
Co-counsel Antonio Romanucci described Nichols as a “human piñata for these police officers.” As he spoke, Nichols’s mother, Row Vaughn Wells, broke into tears and cried out, “My God!”
Crump said Shelby County’s district attorney told him and Nichols’s relatives that the video would not be released for another one to two weeks while the investigation is ongoing. As the police chief prepared the family to watch the video, Crump said, she told them: “I’m not proud of what you’re about to see.”
Nichols’s family has spent the nearly two weeks since his death in protest, rallying demands for the department to release surveillance and body-camera footage and calling for the officers to be criminally prosecuted. They have shared a photo of Nichols’s battered face of him as he lay in a hospital bed before his death of him.
His mother said Nichols suffered from Crohn’s Disease and weighed no more than 145 pounds. “Nobody’s perfect, but he was damn near. My son loved me to death,” she said. “My son didn’t do no drugs. He didn’t kill no one. He didn’t like confrontation.”
The Department of Justice and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation are conducting separate investigations into the arrest.
The Memphis police department announced the firing of the five officers Friday evening — a relatively quick decision compared to most other administrative inquiries that take place after deaths in police custody in the United States. The department’s investigation found the officers—all of whom are Black—used excessive force, failed to intervene and render aid, violating department policy.
The officers—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr. and Justin Smith—each joined the department within the last five years.
Tennessee House Minority Leader Karen D. Camper (D), whose district includes much of Memphis, praised what she described as Davis’s “swift, decisive” action to fire the officers. The revelation that all five are Black has triggered complicated emotions, she said.
“I think the citizens of Memphis were surprised,” Camper said. “They were deeply saddened by it, and to some degree people were shocked because of whatever their own perceptions may have been. How that ultimately changes the reaction, I don’t know.”
Crump said he felt a responsibility to fight for constitutional rights of Americans who are injured by police regardless of the race of the officer.
“What I have come to learn from doing this civil rights work against excessive force policing is that it is not the race of the police officer that is the determinable factor of the amount of excessive force,” Crump said. “It is the race of the citizen.”