A Times Analysis Found That Officers Gave Dozens of Contradictory and Unachievable Orders to Mr. Nichols. The Punishment Was Severe — And Eventually Fatal.
THE THIN BLUE LINE
Police officers unleashed a barrage of commands that were confusing, conflicting and sometimes even impossible to obey, a Times analysis of footage from Tyre Nichols’s fatal traffic stop found. When Mr. Nichols could not comply — and even when he managed to — the officers responded with escalating force.
The review of the available footage found that officers shouted at least 71 commands during the approximately 13-minute period before they reported over the radio that Mr. Nichols was officially in custody. The orders were issued at two locations, one near Mr. Nichols’s vehicle and the other in the area he had fled to and where he would be severely beaten. The orders were often simultaneous and contradictory. Officers commanded Mr. Nichols to show his hands even as they were holding his hands. They told him to get on the ground even when he was on the ground. And they ordered him to reposition himself even when they had control of his body.
Experts say the actions of the Memphis police officers were an egregious example of a longstanding problem in policing in which officers physically punish civilians for perceived disrespect or disobedience — sometimes called “contempt of cop.” The practice was notoriously prevalent decades ago.
One officer pulls Nichols out of his car, and all three officers immediately start screaming “On the ground.” These are the first orders in the bombardment of confusing commands that confound Nichols and prompt a cascade of retribution. Nichols points out that he is sitting on the ground, as the officers instructed him to do. But multiple officers shout the same command over and over with intensifying frustration and physical threats. “Get on the ground!” one orders. “I’m gonna tase your ass.”
It eventually becomes evident that the officers would like Nichols not only on the ground but also lying down. When Nichols repositions himself, it appears to further antagonize the officers. He tries to convey that he poses no threat. “You guys are really doing a lot right now,” he says. “I’m just trying to go home.” With officers pinning down his arms, pressing a Taser against his leg and barking intensifying verbal threats, Nichols explodes: “I am on the ground!” Finally, one of the officers yells more specific instructions: “On your stomach.” Three seconds later, one of the officers shoots pepper spray into Nichols’ face.
Officers continue to issue commands while simultaneously constraining, controlling and assaulting Nichols in ways that render it physically impossible for him to follow the orders. One officer uses Nichols’ handcuffed arm to pull his body from the ground and into a kneeling position. Then another officer strikes him with a baton three times, yelling, “Give us your hands.” Surrounded by four officers, he attempts to move away from the baton. “Give me your … hands,” one officer shouts. But Nichols – with one officer pinning his arms behind his back, another gripping his handcuffed wrist and a third one punching his face – cannot comply. Nichols doubles over and calls out for his mom. The blows continue.