After Tyre Nichols Death, Officials’ Moves Reflect a Shift in Handling Police Violence
CHICAGO — It took 13 months and an order from a judge for the authorities in Chicago to release video showing a police officer firing 16 bullets into Laquan McDonald, a Black teenager, on a busy roadway in 2014.
Before that order, Chicago officials followed what was, at the time, a familiar law-enforcement playbook: Issue a vague, even inaccurate, initial statement. Fight the release of videos and other evidence for months on end. Use a drawn-out investigation as cover for silence.
Over the last few weeks in Memphis, it became clear how much has changed, as officials responded to the police beating and death of Tyre Nichols, a Black 29-year-old.
The Memphis Police Department’s first statement, issued just hours after the arrest, was misleading, omitting details of the beating, but said state investigators had been called in. The messaging grew more urgent after Mr. Nichols died, residents protested and his family pressed the authorities for answers.
Within two weeks, five officers involved in the arrest had been fired. Within three weeks, all five had been charged with second-degree murder, and the city’s police chief, Cerelyn Davis, had condemned their actions as “a failing of basic humanity.” On Friday, Memphis released videos that showed police officers stopping Mr. Nichols and beating him as he repeatedly screamed, “Mom!”
Across the country, even as fatal police encounters have continued apace, many cities have revisited how they investigate and talk about those cases, reflecting the reality that cameras are everywhere and that episode after episode of police violence, often involving Black people, has led to distrust of official accounts. Charging decisions that once took months or longer now sometimes happen within days or weeks. City leaders more freely call out police misbehavior when they see it. Body camera footage is more routinely made public, whether it exonerates the officers or raises questions.
“I think we are seeing a whole new world,” said Quinton Lucas, the mayor of Kansas City, Mo. While the default not long ago was to keep video private, he said, “I think people are understanding slowly but surely — particularly police chiefs — that this is not the sort of thing that can stay secret.”
In Memphis, the release of videos came after grief-stricken statements from Mr. Nichols’s family, who had pushed for them to be made public. The family also commissioned an independent autopsy and shared a photo of Mr. Nichols in the hospital, his face swollen and bruised.
Ben Crump, a lawyer representing Mr. Nichols’s family, praised the swift timeline but suggested that race may have played a role. The five accused police officers are Black. “We want to proclaim that this is the blueprint going forward for any time any officers, whether they be Black or white, will be held accountable,” Mr. Crump said. “No longer can you tell us we got to wait six months to a year.”
Chris Magnus, who previously led the police department in Tucson, Ariz., said there used to be “an attitude that the less that was shared about various incidents — and certainly those that reflected on the shortcomings or misconduct of the police — the better.”
“I think that contributed to a climate that built of mistrust in the police and a lack of confidence because people felt like they were only being fed information when it was good news,” said Mr. Magnus, now a senior adviser at New York University School of Law’s Policing Project.
In recent years, some police departments have avoided a case-by-case debate on releasing footage and started routinely posting videos of police shootings. Officials in Milwaukee and Phoenix, for instance, release YouTube presentations, which often include footage from body cameras, sometimes clipped and narrated. Some agencies now allow family members of the deceased to watch the videos before they are released to the public.
Kristen Ziman, who retired in 2021 as police chief in Aurora, Ill., said that early in her career, she was told not to comment on police shootings. Doing so, the thinking went, risked compromising criminal or internal investigations.
But in recent years, she said, that strategy became untenable. As high-profile deaths at the hands of the police stoked nationwide protests and as more departments adopted body cameras, expectations shifted. She said the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, which touched off protests and unrest across the country, including Aurora, was a turning point.
“I don’t think the public is going to tolerate any more of us saying, ‘This is under investigation and we’ll look at it and we’ll let you know what we decide,’” Ms. Ziman said.
“Now, it’s not just, ‘No comment,’” she added. “It’s, ‘We’re going to get ahead of this incident. We’re going to brace you for what you’re about to see, and it’s not going to be pretty.’”
In Chicago, the fatal police shooting of Mr. McDonald was a footnote in the local news when it happened in October 2014. But as word spread that there was video — and that it did not match the initial descriptions by the Police Department or officers’ union — questions grew about the city’s handling of the case.
In November 2015, hours before the video was released under court order, prosecutors filed charges against the officer who fired the shots, Jason Van Dyke. He was later convicted of second-degree murder and has been released from prison.
The case reshaped Chicago. Garry McCarthy, the police superintendent, was forced out. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, weakened by repeated protests, announced just before Mr. Van Dyke’s trial that he would not run for re-election. The Chicago Police Department was placed under a consent decree.
But Chief McCarthy, who now leads the police force in Willow Springs, Ill., population 5,800, said posting the footage of the McDonald shooting was not his decision to make. Local policies and litigation, he added, can limit a city’s options in deciding when to release video. And he said a broader conversation was needed about when and how such footage should be made public.
“Nobody’s considering the consequence of releasing a video,” Chief McCarthy said, noting the civil unrest and rioting that have previously spread in cities. “Everybody’s saying transparency, transparency, transparency. I’m not sure this is a method that’s functional right now.”
Ja’Mal Green, a Chicago mayoral candidate who in 2015 was one of the most visible protesters of Mr. McDonald’s death, said he saw in Memphis a concerted attempt to learn from mistakes in other cities.
“They’re definitely trying to make sure that they don’t see a blowup,” Mr. Green said.
But while officials’ responses have changed, the underlying issue has remained. Washington Post data of fatal police shootings dating back to 2015 shows little year-to-year variance in the number of Americans dying at the hands of officers. The number of deadly police shootings recorded in 2022 — 1,096 — was the highest since the database started.
Political leaders risk alienating the police rank-and-file when they criticize officers’ actions. But long delays in releasing footage can create the appearance of obfuscation, said Phil Walzak, a onetime press secretary to former Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York City, who had a strained relationship with the police.
Mr. Walzak, also the former spokesman for the city’s Police Department, said official messaging must balance demands for transparency with preserving the integrity of an investigation. That includes ensuring a video release will not compromise the case or the personal security of anyone in the footage. But the process also has to move quickly, he said.
“If you don’t, people will think that you’re either incompetent, or you’re corrupt,” he added. “Even the perception of that can be really devastating. It’s easy to shatter trust, and it’s very hard to put it back together.”
Mr. Lucas, the Kansas City mayor, said releasing evidence and engaging with residents also allow officials to stamp out rumors about officers acting inappropriately.
In Kansas City last year, a witness account of a nonfatal police shooting suggested the wounded woman was pregnant and unarmed. The case became national news, with outrage building until the local prosecutor’s office released a still image from a body camera that showed the woman, later reported to not be pregnant, had been clutching a gun.
“If you don’t share information,” including visuals, Mr. Lucas said, “public imagination will take on its own element and you’ll be dealing with the wrath of that.”
Remy Tumin contributed reporting.