MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – Members of the Cathedral Church of Mt. Olives in Memphis gathered for a church service Sunday, two days after Tyra Nichols’ parents spoke from the sanctuary and called for peace following the release of a video showing their son’s fatal beating at the hands of police.
“So far we’ve been calm, which is what we’ve been praying for,” Pastor Kenneth Thomas said before the service. “And, of course, we hope that continues.”
Cities across the country braced for demonstrations after body camera footage was released Friday showing Memphis police officers beating 29-year-old Nichols, who died of his injuries three days later. Several dozen protesters in Memphis blocked the Interstate 55 bridge that carries traffic over the Mississippi River into Arkansas. Protesters also blocked traffic in New York, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon, but the protests were scattered and nonviolent.
During the church service, Thomas prayed for the Nichols family, asking God to “shower them with your blessings.”
The loss is “still very emotional” for the family, an attorney representing them said Sunday, but they are using all their energy to push for reform both in Memphis and at the federal level.
“His mother has trouble sleeping, but she continues to pray with understanding, because she believes in her heart that Tire was sent here on a mission and that there will be a greater good out of this tragedy,” lawyer Ben Crump said on “These week” on ABC.
Crump welcomed the disbanding of the city’s so-called Scorpion unit, which Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis announced Saturday, citing a “cloud of shame” from the recently released video.
Davis acted a day after the harrowing video was released, saying she listened to Nichols’ relatives, community leaders and uninvolved officers in making the decision. Her announcement came as the nation and city struggled to deal with violence by police officers, who are also black. The video has renewed anger over back-to-back fatal encounters with police that continue to occur despite nationwide calls for change.
Crump told “This Week” that Nichols’ case points to a systemic problem in the way people of color are treated regardless of whether police officers are white, black or any other race.
The culture of “implicit, biased policing” that exists in America is as responsible for Nichols’ death as the five black police officers who killed him, Crump said.
“I believe it’s part of an institutionalized police culture that kind of allows them to use this kind of excessive force and brutality against people of color,” Crump told “This Week.” “The race of the police officers is not the determining factor in whether they engage in excessive use of force, the race of the citizens is.”
He said other members of the Memphis community were targeted by the now-defunct Scorpion unit, which was made up of three teams of about 30 officers whose goal was to target violent offenders in high-crime areas. The unit has been inactive since Nichols’ Jan. 7 arrest.
Scorpion stands for Street Crime Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.
The five officers involved in Nichols’ beating — Tadarius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith — have been fired and charged with murder and other crimes in Nichols’ death. They face up to 60 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.
Video footage of Nichols’ encounter with police shows officers savagely beating the FedEx worker for three minutes, screaming profanities at him. Nichols calls out to his mother before his limp body leans against the police car and the officers exchange punches.
Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, told The Associated Press that she was struck by the immediate aggression of the officers as soon as they got out of the car: “It just turned 100. … This was never a matter of de-escalation,” she said. and added: “The young man never had a chance.”
In a phone conversation with US President Joe Biden, Crump and Nichols parents discussed the need for federal reform like the George Floyd Justice in Police Act, which would ban racial profiling, ban chokeholds and no-knock warrants, limit the transfer of military equipment to police departments, and facilitate indictment against the offending officers.
Biden said he told Nichols’ mother that he would “make the case” to Congress to pass the Floyd Act “to get this under control.”
Memphis police have already implemented reforms after Floyd’s murder, including requiring them to de-escalate or intervene if they see others using excessive force.
Speaking on “This Week,” Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Congress could pass additional measures such as “vetting, training, credentialing, to up the game so that people who have responsibility to keep us safe are really stable and approach this in a professional manner.”
The fact that law enforcement is primarily a state and local responsibility “does not absolve us.” Under the federal constitution we have standards, due process standards and others that we are responsible for,” Durbin said.
“What we saw on the streets of Memphis was simply inhumane and horrific,” he continued. “I don’t know what created this – this anger of these policemen to congratulate themselves for beating a man to death.” But it literally happened.”