Tyre Nichols was about two minutes from his home on the night of Jan. 7, 2023, when Memphis police stopped him. Police vehicles surrounded him, and officers shouted threats and demanded he get out of his car.
In the next moments, all caught on body-worn cameras, officers pulled the 29-year-old from his vehicle, then took turns punching, beating, kicking, pepper-spraying and hitting him with a stun gun as he called out for his mother.
Nichols died in the hospital three days later.
Demonstrations broke out across the country following Nichols’ death. The five officers, who were all Black, were swiftly fired from the police force; the elite tactical unit they belonged to, which specialized in street crime, was disbanded. One officer, Desmond Mills Jr., pleaded guilty to civil rights and conspiracy charges in November. The other four officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith — are still awaiting trial on murder charges and federal civil rights violations.
Nearly a year after Nichols’ death, Memphis finds itself at a crossroads — and at the center of a national debate about what police reform can or should look like. The city has a new mayor, progressive district attorney and ordinance meant to put an end to the kinds of traffic stops that preceded Nichols’ death. But many question whether Memphis has made, or can make, real progress.
‘Exact Same Culture’
In April, the Memphis City Council passed the Driver Equality Act — locals often call it the “Tyre Nichols ordinance” — which was meant to keep police from stopping drivers for minor traffic infractions. Officers initially claimed they had pulled over Nichols for reckless driving.
Under it, Memphis police are also required to make public their data about pulling over civilians and what happens when they do. Memphis police published a database before the ordinance passed, but it doesn’t include all of the details required under the new mandate, such as the type of stop, type of vehicle and if some use of force was used during the encounter.
But residents and activists say one ordinance alone can only change so much, especially if it’s not clearly enforced.
“We still have the exact same training, the exact same culture — so why would you expect that anything would have fundamentally changed?” Hunter Demster, an activist with the police reform group Decarcerate Memphis, told HuffPost.
“The city and the country were in such shocking dismay” after Nichols was killed, he added. “The fact that you cannot put any finger on any type of real change is deafening.”
Demster alleges that he personally has been pulled over multiple times for a broken taillight since the passage of the Driving Equality Act. He said he has reported traffic stops in Memphis, including his own, to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division.
And he’s concerned for the drivers from marginalized communities who have historically been targeted at traffic stops. Black drivers in Memphis were disproportionately stopped between 2017 and 2021, according to Shelby County court records obtained by Decarcerate Memphis, and were twice as likely to receive multiple citations on one ticket as white drivers.
Chase Madkins, a Black father in Memphis, told HuffPost he doesn’t believe the new ordinance has changed policing in the city.
Madkins said he was falsely arrested during a traffic stop in May. He said officers accused him of driving a stolen vehicle, which Madkins had recently purchased from an auction. Madkins alleges that an officer attempted to pull him out of the car, wrapping her arms around his neck and abdomen while he still had his seatbelt on.
Madkins’ 2-year-old son was in the vehicle with him.
“I told them, ‘You know what y’all was doing is illegal. The Tyre Nichols ordinance doesn’t allow for y’all to do these types of stops,’” he told HuffPost. “The officer said he would look into it, but he was trying to sweep it to the side.”
“They literally detained me and were attempting to detain my son,” he said. “I was livid to even see them physically touching my child.”
Madkins’ case was dismissed three months later because he hadn’t been driving a stolen vehicle.
‘A Lot Of Political Chess’
Part of the responsibility to enforce the Driving Equality Act will fall on newly elected Memphis Mayor Paul Young.
Young has publicly supported the traffic-stop ordinance. Nevertheless, activists are concerned over the mayor-elect’s decision to keep Cerelyn Davis, who was already a controversial figure in the city before Nichols’ death, in her role as police chief.
Davis previously led the “Red Dog” unit at the Atlanta Police Department, which had a reputation for terrorizing the city’s residents. She established a similar unit as leader of the Memphis Police Department: the SCORPION Unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods and soon gained a similar reputation.
All five officers who pulled over Nichols were members of the unit, and Davis disbanded it after his death.
“These are all various different types of really aggressive police units that are hyperaggressive and over-police Black folks in urban neighborhoods,” Kareem Ali, a Memphis activist who works closely with Nichols’ family, told HuffPost. “With Tyre, it has opened up a conversation and policy change and enforced accountability in these types of police units that profile Black people while driving.”
Residents are also skeptical of Young for selecting Tony Armstrong, a former Memphis Police director, to handle policing issues on his transition team.
In July, Armstrong chastised Black Lives Matter supporters and activists for not being concerned about “Black-on-Black crime,” telling a local television station, “There should not be an asterisk (that) Black lives matter only when they are taken by law enforcement official.”
Police oversight will also fall to the office of Steve Mulroy, who became the Shelby County district attorney in September 2022. Many Memphis residents were cautiously optimistic that his election would serve as a turning point for the city after the long tenure of Amy Weirich.
The DA’s office immediately made some changes, including establishing the city’s first-ever unit tasked with handling wrongful convictions — something Weirich had long been against.
Most recently, the unit reviewed the case of Gershun Freeman, a Black man who died in custody of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department in 2022. Nine Shelby County deputies were charged in Freeman’s death in September, Mulroy’s office announced.
“He has done tenfold better than past district attorneys, and I can’t imagine navigating that field with the state legislator coming after you, right-wing people coming after you, left-wing people coming after you,” Demster said. “I think in his first year in office he has a good start, but he has a long way to go.”
“There is a lot of political chess going on. If he does not pursue certain cases, prosecute certain cases, the state can remove him,” he added, noting that Tennessee’s Republican governor has the right to remove a district attorney.
‘It Should Not Be This Way’
Memphis had seen other high-profile shootings of citizens by police over the years, but the officers involved saw minimal repercussions. During her tenure as district attorney from 2011 to 2022, Weirich did not file charges against any officer in a case involving a civilian dying due to lethal force used by police.
In 2015, then-Memphis Police Officer Connor Schilling fatally shot Darrius Stewart, a 19-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop. A grand jury did not indict Schilling; after Nichols’ death, Stewart’s family demanded that a new grand jury be convened. Mulroy’s office said in February that it would review information on Stewart’s case, but no movement has been made.
In 2018, Martavious Banks, a Black man who was 24 at the time, was critically injured when then-Memphis Police Officer Jamarcus Jeames shot him as he ran toward his mother’s home during a traffic stop. Jeames violated policy by not having his body camera operating during the shooting, and he resigned.
But none of these cases caught national attention as Nichols’ did.
The Department of Justice opened a pattern and practice investigation into the Memphis Police Department in July, which is ongoing and may take up to a year to conduct. The DOJ is investigating whether Memphis police exhibited bias during traffic stops and participated in discriminatory policing, and could impose new guidance on officers if it determines they did.
Tennessee state Rep. Justin Pearson (D) told HuffPost that Nichols shouldn’t have had to die for local reform to start taking place.
“We have to remember, as we remember Tyre and so many lives lost to police brutality and racism, that was the same situation as the loss of Emmett Till. It shook the nation,” he said.
“It should not be this way. It should not require the death of more Black people for our country to have consciousness. We do not have to wait for a tragedy to happen in order to do that work.”
But Memphis residents — and people nationwide — are still waiting for police reform at the federal level.
Nichols’ death prompted lawmakers to discuss once again trying to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. The legislation is focused on bringing an end to tactics such as no-knock warrants and would make it easier for officers to be prosecuted for crimes against civilians; Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said during Nichols’ funeral that the bill should include a “Tyre Nichols duty to intervene” amendment, which would require an officer or officers to intervene in a situation deemed as excessive force by one of their partners on a civilian.
The original bill passed the House and has been sent to the Senate, but has not moved since March 2021.
“When we talk about policies and the duty to intervene, and training of officers, and all of that since George Floyd and that picked up steam after, we know those things have an impact,” said Tracie Keesee, the co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity.
“But what you are really trying to do is disrupt a culture that turns a blind eye to those things.”