Witness thought Tyre Nichols was already dead at the scene of police beating, new documents show

Feb 14, 2024, 7:10 AM | Updated: 2:14 pm

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The city of Memphis on Wednesday released hundreds of pages of documents tied to the January 2023 fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five police officers, including an account from a witness who saw Nichols slumped on the pavement and thought he was already dead.

The latest documents include personnel files for Memphis police and fire department employees who were fired, as well as internal police investigation files, a witness statement and emails between city and police officials.

Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died in a hospital Jan. 10, 2023, three days after the beating. The five officers who were charged in his killing are also Black.

Police spoke with a witness who lived in the neighborhood where the beating occurred and shot video and photos of the scene. The witness saw Nichols lying on the ground, according to a transcript.

“Dude wasn’t budging … I was like, ’Oh my god, I think he’s dead,’” the witness said.

The witness said an officer removed Nichols’ handcuffs and an emergency medical technician approached. Then it was clear something was wrong.

“The EMT guy lifts his hand, it falls,” the witness said. “It like fell real hard.”

The witness added: “It just bothered me that everybody was standing out in the street. Had no care in the world that this guy was laying here.” Previously released video shows officers and other first responders milling about and chatting as Nichols lay slumped on the ground.

The documents also name the five other officers who violated department policies but were not fired.

Meanwhile, personnel files for Lt. Dewayne Smith, the supervisor on scene who was allowed to retire before he could be fired, show he was arrested in 1999 in a domestic violence incident. Documents show Smith’s wife called 911 saying he was intoxicated, armed and threatening her children. Investigators said they couldn’t determine if Smith actually pulled his weapon. He was encouraged to seek counseling and suspended for 15 days.

Nearly a year later, an unnecessary violence complaint was made against Smith after witnesses said he struck a man who ran from officers.

Deborah Godwin, Smith’s lawyer, said he was a dedicated officer for 25 years and that those two disciplinary issues do not represent his public service or have anything to do with Nichols’ killing.

“Lt. Smith wasn’t present at the scenes and did not arrive until after the Emergency Medical personnel arrived,” she wrote in an email to the AP.

An initial incident report for Nichols’ arrest, included among the latest documents, reasserts many now-disproven claims of the fired and charged officers.

It claims that after stopping Nichols for driving into oncoming traffic, he became combative, was sweating profusely and grabbed for an officer’s gun, prompting another officer to attempt to shock Nichols with his Taser. Videos released in the days after Nichols’ death and statements from Memphis Police officials have debunked much of that narrative.

The report also states that once the officers caught up to Nichols on foot, he grabbed for their vests and service belts, and that officers responded by spraying him with a chemical agent, striking his right arm with a baton, and arresting him. Videos show a starkly different encounter — an almost 3-minute barrage of fists, feet and baton strikes to Nichols’ face, head, front and back, as he yells for his mother about a block from his home.

Internal affairs officers were called to investigate about three hours after the initial traffic stop, records show. Lt. Smith was in the hospital with Nichols and said he was in critical condition with “a bump on his head.” Smith mentioned officers’ use of a stun gun and a Taser, but not the beating. Later at the station, Lt. Smith reported that he was told Nichols had grabbed Martin’s gun and Justin Smith’s vest and gun belt.

The internal affairs investigator reviewed the body camera footage of Officer Preston Hemphill, who was fired but not charged, and noted that Hemphill approached Nichols’ car with his weapon pointed. The investigator wrote of Nichols: “Non-violent. Complied with getting on the ground.”

Within three hours, the investigator told higher ups that six officers committed violations and must be relieved of duty. Deputy Chief Paul Wright approved the recommendation minutes later.

The day after the beating, Lt. Smith commented on some Nichols-related reports that he had seen no policy violations on body camera videos.

A state judge ordered the release of the documents in November on the same day that former officer Desmond Mills Jr. pleaded guilty to federal charges in Nichols’ death.

A coalition of media organizations, including The Associated Press, pressed for more information to be made public, citing the First Amendment. That spurred the release of 21 more hours of video and audio on Jan. 30 this year.

The city released some documents last year detailing the personnel records of the officers involved, and it said Wednesday that with the latest release all documents related to the court decision have been made public.

“We understand the importance of releasing these documents to the public. This release represents our commitment to transparency,” Mayor Paul Young said in a statement.

Mills also intends to plead guilty to criminal charges in state court and could be called to testify against his four former colleagues — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin and Justin Smith — who remain charged with federal civil rights violations and second-degree murder and other criminal counts in state court. They have pleaded not guilty.

Their federal trial is set for Sept. 9. The state trial begins Aug. 12, but that could change.

Two other Memphis officers were fired for their involvement, and two emergency medical technicians and a fire lieutenant lost their jobs for failing to provide adequate aid. The newly released documents also identify a paramedic who was suspended.

One fired employee, advanced EMT JaMichael Sandridge, said during an administrative hearing that “from what we gathered on scene, there was nothing I could have done that would have prevented that patient’s death.”

The U.S. Department of Justice opened a “patterns and practices” investigation into how Memphis Police Department officers use force and conduct arrests, and whether the department in the majority-Black city engages in racially discriminatory policing.

In March, the Justice Department announced a separate review concerning use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialized units in the Memphis Police Department. Also, Nichols’ mother has sued the city and its police chief over her son’s death.


Lauer reported from Philadelphia and Mattise reported from Nashville, Tennessee. Associated Press writers Kristin Hall, Travis Loller and Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville contributed to this report.

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Witness thought Tyre Nichols was already dead at the scene of police beating, new documents show