Full Episode: Washington Week full episode, Jan. 27, 2023

Jan. 27, 2023 AT 9:18 p.m. EST

The killing of Tyre Nichols shocks the nation as five fired Memphis police officers are charged with murder. Now, law enforcement agencies around the country are on high alert, bracing themselves for possible reaction to the video's release. Join moderator Yamiche Alcindor, Julia Baker of the Daily Memphian, Wesley Lowery, Ed O'Keefe of CBS News and Claudia Grisales of NPR to discuss the latest.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Yamiche Alcindor: The video of the police killing of Tyre Nichols shocks the nation. 

Good evening and welcome to Washington Week. The nation is processing the disturbing video released from the city of Memphis tonight that shows the arrest that led to the death of Tyre Nichols. Nichols was a 29-year-old black man, a father, FedEx worker, photographer and skateboarding enthusiast. He died from injuries on January 10th, three days after a police traffic stop.

We are now going to play a portion of the video released tonight. The first part of the video taken was taken as Tyre Nichols was first arrested. He ran away from police. And the second part of the video shows police after they apprehended him again.

We want to warn our viewers, this video is disturbing and it contains graphic material.

That is just so hard to watch.

And this is what we know so far. Earlier this week, five black Memphis police officers were fired, arrested and charged with murder in connection with his death. Police claims Nichols was driving recklessly and that he was injured as they try to detain him. Reports say the officers then delayed getting Nichols medical health.

According to the Shelby County district attorney, all five officers played a role in Nichols death. They are charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. Attorneys for two of the indicted police officers said their clients plan on pleading not guilty. All five officers have since been released on bond. And Nichols' family is reeling from his death. Here is his mother on CNN today.

Rawvaughn Wells, Tyre Nichols' Mother: I don't have my baby. I'll never have my baby again. They had beat him to a pulp. He had bruises all over him. His head was swollen like a watermelon. They broke his neck.

Yamiche Alcindor: It is just incredible and sad to hear her talk about her son's injuries.

And anticipation of its release, these video's release, Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis and FBI Director Christopher, well, described the video.

Cerelyn Davis, Chief, Memphis Police Department: You're going to see a disregard for life.

Christopher Wray, FBI Director: I have seen the video myself, and I will tell you I was appalled. I am struggling to find a stronger word but I will just tell you I was appalled.

Yamiche Alcindor: Major law enforcement agencies around the country are on high alert, bracing themselves for reaction to the video. Some protests are already underway.

And joining me tonight to discuss this and more, Julia Baker, Reporter for The Daily Memphian, Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has reported extensively on policing and race, he's also the author of the book, They Can't Kill Us All, Ferguson, Baltimore and a New Era in America's Racial Justice Movement. And joining me here in studio, Claudia Grisales, she's a congressional correspondent for NPR, and Ed O'Keefe, Senior White House Correspondent for CBS News.

So, Wesley, I want to start with you. I almost don't have the words after watching the video to talk about this but I am going to try, as we are all, I'm sure, watching this video with heavy hearts. What did you see that sticks out to you as someone who unfortunately along with me has watched videos like this where we have seen people get beaten by the police? What sticks out to you as you watched this video?

Wesley Lowery, Author, They Can't Kill Us All: Of course, a lot of things stick out to me as I watched this video. As you know, Yamiche, you and I have been on the ground in many cities after the release of videos like this, has spent time with a lot of families, like Tyre Nichols'. And so, of course, it is understandable that there's emotion that's evoked when we watch something like this.

And in some ways, I think it is important to note and underscore, as horrific as many of the images here are, we have seen many video like this. This isn't particularly terrible or particularly bad, not in any way take away from the horrific images.

But what we see in these videos captured by body cameras of the officers, another captured by a surveillance camera, is we see what was a traffic stop, according to the police, for reckless driving quickly escalated. We saw Tyre Nichols get pulled from his car. We see multiple officers pepper spraying him and tasing him as he attempts to say that he is already on the ground, they can have his hands. There is a struggle.

We hear repeated escalations from the officers, threats of physical violence if he doesn't comply. We hear what happens very often in these cases are contradictory instructions, lay down, roll over, show us your hands, put them up, put them down.

And, eventually, Tyre Nichols gets away and that's where the surveillance camera really comes in, where we see from above images of Tyre Nichols handcuffed, or appearing to be handcuffed, being held by multiple officers, as other officers kicked him, it seems, in the head and then throw wild punches at him as he is standing. I mean, this does seem extremely excessive. That's probably an understatement. It's almost too neutral of a way to describe.

And at almost no point, actually, I think at no point -- I obviously have only gotten to see the video once or twice because it just came out. It is hard to point to any moment in these videos where Tyre Nichols represents a threat to these officers. He does not appear to be fighting them in any active way. As we know, he was not armed with anything. But, again, at the point at which he is handcuffed and being held by multiple officers, we see kicks to his head and haymaker punches. And I think that those are clearly the reason that these officers have been fired and charged with serious crimes that they've been charged with.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Wesley, I want to stick with you, because there is something people have been talking about all week, which is the fact that the officers are black. And we know, as people who cover policing, frankly, that racial bias doesn't mean that you can't have racial bias if you are an African-American police officer. But break down for people who are wondering how in the world do black officers do this, frankly, and what is this culture of policing that Ben Crump, who is the lawyer for the Tyre Nichols family, is talking about, that is part of the reason why Tyre Nichols, unfortunately, is not with his family tonight?

Wesley Lowery: Of course. Well, first of all, and, obviously, this is early, there is going to be more reporting, and there are great journalists already doing some of that reporting, but this was a set of officers of the SCORPION unit, which is a specialized unit started recently in Memphis. Memphis is one of the cities that's seen an uptick in violence in recent years. And there is a lot of concern about crime. And this was one of the units that was set up especially to got target -- they call it hotspot policing, the types of places where crime rises. We see this playing out in cities across the country, where they say, well, we can focus very heavily on certain places.

But what we see very often with these specialty units is this type of impunity. It is notable, frankly, that -- and, again, I've only seen the video once or twice, but it appears these officers, at least the primary officer who perhaps conducted the traffic stop, is wearing a hoodie, not even a full uniform. It appears that he is in an unmarked car that just looks like a Dodge Charger or some other type of car like that. But we also see this hyper aggression from these officers.

It is unsurprising to me that the officers involved here are black. What we know is that policing and the way it trains and the way it staffs and how it resources, very often structures a dynamic where it is us versus them. As we see, right, there is very little in this video that leads us to believe that the men who were out there that night were concerned about the public safety. There wasn't a threat the public safety. It's very hard to point to a moment in that video and go, well, this is the point where, in order to keep the rest of us are safe, Tyre Nichols needed to be treated this way.

This was a traffic stop for I believe reckless driving, although that city officials have said they're not even sure they can substantiate that there was a valid reason to stop him in the first place. And we see escalating violence time and time and time again.

I'll just say, again, I am not at all surprised the officers were black, because when we talk about race and policing, we talk about the way black men, black women, black people are perceived in the way they are perceived by all of us. And so anti-black racism, the idea of thinking of black men and women as prone to violence, as dangerous, as bigger or stronger or more insidious than they really are, something that can affect all of our minds, and black people are not immune from that as well.

And so what we see very often, and I know I have friends who say this to their kids when they have the talk, right, that when you see a police officer, they are not white or black, they are blue. And police will often say that themselves, meaning something a little different. But in this case, what we saw here were agents of the state enacting severe violence against a man who, again, from what we can tell, did not seem to be posing much of a threat to them.

Yamiche Alcindor: Such important points, Wesley.

Julia, you are, of course, in Memphis, you have been covering this case. Tell me about your reaction to seeing this video and whether or not it's some insight -- if you gained insight into why this case moved so quickly, because it's been less than a month, and these officers have been fired and they are now charged with murder.

Julia Baker, Criminal Justice Reporter, The Daily Memphian: Right. You don't see these cases move through the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation very often. You're right, it's very uncommon to see that but you can certainly see why. He was pulled out of a police car and he did not seem to pose a violent threat to these officers.

And one thing that popped out to me was for somebody who was just reckless driving, why did you need so many police officers? And then towards the end, he is laying there, you can see his face and it is obviously not good, and these officers don't seem to have much of a reaction and neither do the paramedics, and, two, those paramedics are also under investigation and the fire department right now.

And people in Memphis are -- they're upset about it, even if it's -- it doesn't matter the color of the officer. What matters is we don't need this police brutality, and while crime is going up in Memphis, do we really need this hotspot policing? And that is something our local government is really considering right now.

The SCORPION unit is currently inactive since this incident happened. We don't know if it's going to come back but we do know that it is inactive right now. So, I think that's an indication that we are kind of reconsidering these hotspot policing methods.

Yamiche Alcindor: And definitely a lot of questions there in Memphis. I also want to point out that today, President Biden spoke to the family of Tyre Nichols and told them that he will be pushing Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act. Of course, that's named after George Floyd who was killed in the summer of 202. That officer who killed him is in prison for murder.

Here is more of what President Biden said on the White House lawn.

Joe Biden, U.S. President:  What's at stake is, first of all, innocent people's lives, number one. Number two, it has a lot to say and do with the image of America. It has a lot to do with whether or not we are the country we say we are, that we are a country of law and order and means by which we can peacefully protest and let the courts make their judgment.

Yamiche Alcindor: So, Ed, there you heard the president talking about this. Tell me a bit about what you think and what you hear rather is going on in the White House, his thinking, and, of course, your reaction to this video as you've been reporting on it.

Ed O'Keefe, Senior White House Correspondent, CBS News: Yes. Well, what I was struck by was how I think a lot of us who cover these issues learned that law enforcement at all levels across the country started getting the details of this a few days ago as a heads-up. And it has been compared at least in my shop to the way governors and mayors and emergency management officials prepare and sometimes overprepare now for natural disasters in the wake of Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy, in essence, a call went out to major city police forces across the country. This is bad, this is the worst of our line of work and it's going to cause problems, you need to prepare.

Federal authorities began getting those briefings yesterday. The White House held a meeting around 10:00 A.M. Thursday to talk about this. The president was told about it. And tonight, surely after the video was released, he issued another statement, saying, again, he is outraged by what he saw and he knows how exhausting and terrible this is, especially for black and brown Americans.

But there are various roles a president plays, right? You're a commander-in-chief, you're a legislative negotiator, you're a comforter-in-chief. And I was struck today when he said, I spoke to the mother, and I told here, there is very little I can do other than push Congress to try to get this legislation, that they tried and failed to pass before through.

He may be limited to simply being the comforter-in-chief and a guy who can call out what this video shows is just really bad policing. Cops who just seemed totally incapable of doing the job come up from the basic task of going trying to arrest somebody and hold them in place, to chasing them down and just the way they treated this guy. He was treated no better than an animal and it is just terrible to watch.

And we're paid to watch it and we have to process it. Americans and viewers don't have to if they don't want to, but you need to know it is terrible. And it's the worst of policing and it's going to cause yet another raucous and roil debate in this country about how policing should be conducted, and the footage is just indisputable.

And the fact now too that they have that overhead surveillance shot that Wes talks about, that is the clearest example. And all I felt when I saw it is the contrast between that and what happened to Rodney King all those years ago, there's almost no difference. And that is what is so troubling to police officers who have seen this earlier this week and began warning everybody to prepare for the reaction.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Claudia, this is troubling, and the debates that Ed is talking about are, of course, going to come to the halls of Congress where you spend your time reporting. So, what are you hearing from lawmakers? Is there any potential, especially with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats controlling the Senate, that there could be a sort of move on policing in terms of legislation here?

Claudia Grisales, Congressional Correspondent, NPR: Yes. I think Ed raises a really good point in terms of President Biden perhaps being in a position of just being comforter-in-chief for this, because Congress is in a very difficult position right now in terms of divided government and trying to address legislation at the scale that would go into policing. We saw the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act only get through the House last year, and this is as Democrats controlled both chambers but too narrow a margin in the Senate to move it there.

We did see South Carolina Republican Tim Scott try and push forward his proposal to try and raise the standard, to incentivize these local police departments to do better, to try and train better and avoid these kind of tragic situations.

But when we come back to the George Floyd legislation, for example, this is what President Biden said. He will ask Congress to revisit. This is an issue that I could see coming up at the state of the union address next month, where he could plead with members, please re-think, what can you do here, is there a bipartisan path?

And so one key detail to remember there, one of the key architects of that legislation was Karen Bass, she is now the mayor of Los Angeles. It's just another reminder of folks who are missing who could help try and push this kind of legislation through. But even so, we have House Republicans in charge in that chamber. It's going to take a lot of work to try and get on the same page when it comes to reaching some sort of consensus to address this horrific video we've seen tonight.

Yamiche Alcindor: It certainly going to take a lot of work.

And, Julia, I want to come back to you because I almost want to go back to Memphis for a bit to talk about who these police officers were. There is some reporting that you said that one of them might have been involved in another possible troubling incident. Talk to us about what you are reporting there.

Julia Baker: One of the officers, Demetrius Haley, was formerly a corrections officer at our county division of corrections. In 2015, allegedly, he and two other corrections officers did something similar with an inmate. The inmate filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging that these officers punched him in the face and the other officer slammed his head into a sink and he went unconscious after that. So, it is interesting that this -- it seems like the same (INAUDIBLE) kind of there in this instance.

And as far as the other officers, I'm not really sure if they have any past brutality. The local law enforcement hasn't heard of it. So, I think it's (INAUDIBLE) Demetrius Haley. But that lawsuit got dismissed, so he was able to get hired by the police department and, as we know, this is happening.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Wesley, as soon as this happened, and I started doing a deep dive into this, I thought about you reporting on the fact that police officers often move to different law enforcement agencies, if a bad cop gets fired, he can get hired somewhere else. How does that play into the culture of policing and, frankly, bad policing?

Wesley Lowery: Of course, it's very difficult to fire or get rid of a police officer. We talk very often about the difficulty in charging and convicting a police officer, but police internal affairs, police H.R. is very complicated and it's very messy. And what we see very often is in cases where officers are fired, they are able to successfully get their job back.

I did a project a few years ago with Kimbriell Kelly and Steven Rich, my colleagues at the Post, and we looked at major cities. And what we found was something like six out of ten fired police officers, so these are police officers who were so bad, the police don't think they should be police, six out of ten of them are able to get their jobs back. That's not even going to another department. That's not even moving down the street. That's going back to the place that has fired them. Beyond that, though, we very see often fired police officers who are able to get hired in other departments.

And so this happens very frequently. I think one thing that is notable here is the speed with which these officers were fired and charged. Some of this is due to the specific way that laws work in Tennessee and the way the union contracts governing Memphis. There are some departments, some states where they wouldn't have even been able to take statements from these officers yet, where you have seven days, in some cases, you have 30 days before you're allowed to even speak to an officer who is charged and who is involved in an incident like this.

And so, again, I think some of the speed we are seeing here, I certainly understand why people want to give credit to the elected officials for what they are doing, and I think there are reasonable points to be made where it is night and day from the way these things were handled by local governments not even that long ago, five or ten years ago.

But what is also true when we start trying to compare case-to-case, right, the officials in Shelby County, Tennessee and Memphis have a totally different set of tools at their disposal than, say, the officials in Baltimore after Freddie Gray's death, right?

And so I think that's something to keep in mind as well, is that everything that governs how this stuff plays out his local police union contracts, local collective bargaining agreements, local and state laws and city ordinances and all of that factors into how any of these given cases going to be handled. And so what we are seeing now has empowered and enabled, in some ways, it's specifically retrofit to rules in Memphis. And so while there are some things that people might perceive as working in the favor of accountability, next week or as the trial progresses, we might see some other quirk that people think works in the opposite direction.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Wesley, I want to ask you another quick question, which is -- and it's not that quick, but I want to ask you this question, which is, we don't know how many other Tyre Nichols there are officially, because you won a Pulitzer for making a database at The Washington Post tracking the way that people are killed by the police, but we don't have an official number. As we wrap up here, could you just quickly, in a minute or so, tell people, explain to people that we don't know officially from the government how many people could also be out there and have the same fate.

Wesley Lowery: Of course, we have no real idea. The best counts of how many people are killed by the police are kept by journalists and citizen journalism efforts, mapping police violence, my colleagues at the Post and the fatal force database. But even then, that is work that has to be done to compile it department-by-department, case-by-case, and most of those might not. I mean, I know our database at the Post wouldn't include Tyre Nichols because we looking specifically at people who were shot and killed by police.

I think the second thing beyond the data, and I'll be real quick about this, is let's just think for a moment about how we would have perceived this incident if there was no video, if all we had was the police account of what happened. Now, think for a second moment how we would have perceived this if we only had the body camera video. And now think about what we can see because of the surveillance video.

And so we ask the question about how many more Tyre Nichols are out there. It's not even just the counting, and that's certainly a big part of it, but it's the idea that there are so many police encounters where all we have is the police version of what happened. And we know in a case like this, listening to the police version of what happened (INAUDIBLE) just for an idea of what happened than what we can now we with our own eyes.

Yamiche Alcindor: And, Ed, jump in here. I know you have --

Ed O'Keefe: I just what I think is also telling in this video in addition to the wide angle that we get by virtue of the surveillance camera, these guys in essence are showing us their work. And part of what we hear and see now is after they beat him, they start comparing notes with each other. Oh, he tried taking my gun, talking about how they -- more than one of them felt compelled to use pepper spray and tasers. Why?

You could almost see them bragging and also maybe fabricating elements of what had just transpired on the videos that we now see. So, the evidence laid out against these officers is just so clear thanks to this footage, and it is a reminder that there are so many other incidents we just don't see.

Yamiche Alcindor: Claudia, in a minute we have left here.

Claudia Grisales: Right. There's a moment where we see an officer tying his shoe, and that's a moment where they should be rendering aid. This man is against his vehicle. We cannot tell if he's alive, he's dying, what is going on. And as you say, the tone is as if they are bragging. It is utterly tragic but something we all need to know about.

Yamiche Alcindor: Yes. And it's a reminder that we are living in a country where this can happen, Claudia.

Claudia Grisales: Exactly.

Yamiche Alcindor: Exactly.

Well, we have to leave it there, but thank you so much to our panel for joining us and for sharing your reporting.

Don't forget to watch PBS News Weekend on Saturday for the latest on the death of Tyre Nichols. And finally, I have to say this. My heart goes out to the family of Tyre Nichols and those who loved him. God bless you. Find peace. And I wanted to say, my heart also goes out to everyone across our nation who has watched this video or will watch this video. It is important to watch it. But I wanted to say, brace yourself.

I am Yamiche Alcindor. Good night from Washington.


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