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Mother of Tyre Nichols calls for peaceful protests when 'horrific' video is released

LA Times logo LA Times 1/27/2023 Libor Jany, Noah Goldberg
RowVaughn Wells speaks during a candlelight vigil for her son, Tyre Nichols, Thursday in Memphis. Nichols died after being severely beaten by five Memphis police officers on Jan. 7. (Scott Olson / Getty Images) © Provided by LA Times RowVaughn Wells speaks during a candlelight vigil for her son, Tyre Nichols, Thursday in Memphis. Nichols died after being severely beaten by five Memphis police officers on Jan. 7. (Scott Olson / Getty Images)

The family of Tyre Nichols called for peaceful protests in anticipation of the release of video of his fatal beating by Memphis police that led to murder charges against five officers.

RowVaughn Wells — Nichols' mother — made the plea at a candlelight vigil Thursday and again at a Friday news conference in honor of her 29-year-old son, who died Jan. 10 after he was hospitalized following a violent arrest by police. The city of Memphis plans to release about an hour of video footage after 4 p.m. Pacific time showing what the police chief called the "inhumane" actions of officers toward Nichols.

"When that tape comes out [Friday], it's going to be horrific. But I want each and every one of you to protest in peace. If you guys are here for me and Tyre, then you will protest peacefully," Wells said at the vigil Thursday night.

"We want peace. We do not want any type of uproar any type of disturbance. That’s what [the] family wants that’s what [the] community wants. Please, please, protest, but protest safely," said Rodney Wells, Nichols' stepfather, at Friday's news conference .

The video has been compared by lawyers for the Nichols family to the 1991 Rodney King beating — but in higher definition. It compiles numerous forms of video, including body camera footage and pole camera images, according to Shelby County Dist. Atty. Steven Mulroy.

Wearing a Memphis Grizzlies fitted cap, Wells told reporters on Friday that his family was “satisfied” with how swiftly the officers involved were charged.

"We’re very satisfied with the charges," he said in a gravelly baritone.

He spoke at a news conference in the airy Mt. Olive Cathedral Christian Methodist Episcopal Church on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a prominent street in downtown Memphis on which King marched with striking sanitation workers days before his assassination in 1968. Nichols' mother said she couldn't bring herself to watch the video, but that she heard it was "very, very horrific."

"And any of you who have children, please don’t let them see it," she said.

Still, the family repeated its call for peaceful protests after the video's release.

"I want to say to the five police officers that murdered my son, you also disgraced your own families when you did this. I’m going to pray for you and your families," she said, tearing up on the stage of the church.

The five officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — were released from the Shelby County Jail early Friday morning, according to jail records. Attorney Blake Ballin, who represents Mills, confirmed his client's release on $250,000 bail.

The police encounter occurred Jan. 7, when Nichols was pulled over on suspicion of disobeying traffic laws, according to Memphis police.

Nichols was returning home from Shelby Farms, a public park in Memphis where he enjoyed watching the sunset and taking photos, according to his mother.

Officers had an initial encounter with Nichols beside his car, where he was pepper-sprayed, said family attorney Antonio Romanucci, who has seen the video.

Nichols then fled from his vehicle on foot and was chased by officers, according to police and Romanucci.

Police then delivered a "savage" beating to the young father as he screamed, "What did I do?" and called for his mother, who lived just down the street from the scene.

"This one people would consider more violent, more shocking [than the George Floyd video] and certainly very much like Rodney King. They were defenseless," Romanucci said in an interview with The Times.

The anticipated release of the video put the police department in Memphis — as well as departments across the country — on notice for a possible outbreak of protests.

A Los Angeles Police Department spokeswoman said the department was prepared for protests and had "contingency" plans that are always in place, but said that no "special preparations" were being made for the release of the video.

The death of Nichols comes after the Memphis Police Department, like many departments nationwide, enacted reforms following the murder of Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020.

After Floyd’s murder, Memphis police adopted reforms such as requiring its officers to intervene if they witnessed misconduct or excessive force by their colleagues — following a model set by a nationwide police reform initiative called 8 Can’t Wait, according to UCLA law professor Joanna Schwartz, who studies police accountability.

Based on the descriptions of the Nichols beating by those who have watched the body cam footage, protests are likely to break out, and the country could be “headed into another moment of reckoning just a few years after George Floyd’s murder,” Schwartz said.

She said she was surprised by the speed with which the officers involved were fired and charged, calling it “very unusual for these kind of cases. Officers are really rarely disciplined, or even more rarely, criminally prosecuted.”

“The police department is acting uncharacteristically for any law enforcement agency, uncharacteristically quickly, to have fired the officers," Schwartz said.

Jany reported from Memphis and Goldberg from Los Angeles.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.


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