Gerald Herbert/AP Images
- Body cam footage of Tyre Nichols’ death is expected to be released Friday evening.
- Graphic videos of police brutality can be traumatizing, especially for the Black community.
- Balancing transparency and accountability with trauma is key, experts say.
Memphis is bracing for unrest as the public waits for police to release bodycam footage of Tyre Nichols’ death.
Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died three days after he was held at a traffic stop and beaten by Memphis police officers. The police department fired the five officers, who are facing murder charges, and are expected to release video footage of the arrest on Friday evening.
But many members of the Black community and police accountability experts fear that video footage can do more harm than good, even if the evidence can provide transparency and accountability in cases of police brutality.
RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, has refused to watch the video, and urged parents not to show kids the video when it’s released.
“What I’ve heard is very horrific, very horrific and any of you who have children please don’t let them see it,” Wells told the public.
Members of the Memphis clergy and activist community have had several meetings with city officials to discuss planning for the release of the video in a way that would minimize any unrest.
Balancing transparency and trauma is a difficult but important necessity for advancing justice, according to police accountability experts and lawyers.
Video footage can be retraumatizing
Members of the Black community have similarly said they won’t be watching the video of Nichols’ death, and are urging the public not to share the video. Bodycam footage of police brutality cases are often graphic and can be traumatizing for viewers, especially Black people.
—Charity Sadé (@BlckFemmesMattr) January 27, 2023
“It is traumatizing to see, especially for Black people. If it takes watching Black people get tortured & not the fact that we have been screaming forever about the violence from police then they need to figure that sh-t out, but not at the expense of Black people,” one Twitter user wrote.
Others have shared steps on limiting exposure to graphic video footage.
Family and officials who watched the video described it as “heinous” and “inhumane.”
“It was an unadulterated, unabashed, non-stop beating of this young boy for three minutes,” Antonio Romanucci, the Nichols family’s attorney, said, likening Nichols to “a human pinata.”
Citizens in Memphis await the release of video footage of Tyre Nichols’ death.
Gerald Herbert/AP Photo
Bodycam footage does not always prevent police brutality
Body-worn cameras are meant to improve officer safety, increase evidence quality, and protect the public.
Research on the effectiveness of bodycams have yielded mixed results: One 2021 report by the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Council on Criminal Justice’s Task Force on Policing found that complaints against police dropped 17% and the use of police force fell by nearly 10%, while other studies found no statistically significant differences in either use of force or civilian complaints.
In the courtroom, video footage can provide “immeasurably important” evidence in police brutality cases, according to Christopher E. Brown, principal attorney at The Brown Firm, a law firm that litigates cases involving police excessive force.
One of the most powerful examples of the significance of video played out in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted of murder and manslaughter in the killing of George Floyd. Bodycam footage from the police officers involved in Floyd’s arrest revealed his death from various angles, and both prosecutors and defense attorneys used the video extensively throughout the case.
“If there weren’t video, you’re dealing with the blue line: the officers protecting one another. From their perspective, it’s admirable. From our perspective, it’s atrocious. The bodycam footage penetrates that line,” Brown told Insider.
Balancing transparency and accountability with trauma
Releasing video footage of police brutality is a way to ensure transparency and accountability for law enforcement, which has an obligation to the public, according to experts.
“One of the most important things about state violence is that it often happens in public spaces,” Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, said. “So it really does go beyond the individual interaction between the police officers in question and the person injured. It’s a public issue that all of us should be invested in and care about, and that could impact all of us at some point.”
Bonds, a Black lawyer fighting to end police brutality, said it’s “incredibly valid” that viewing graphic footage can be traumatic, and said she doesn’t watch these videos unless her work requires it. Having footage available to the public, however, can provide power to pressure law enforcement to hold officers accountable, Bonds said.
“It is the responsibility of the people who put these videos out there to give viewers advanced notice and the option to opt out,” Bonds told Insider.
Regardless of whether members of the public decide to watch the footage, which family attorney Ben Crump said will “evoke strong emotions,” the Nichols family remains steadfast in their calls for peaceful protest.
“This is a special case. We had a special son,” Nichols’ stepfather Rodney Wells said, adding later, “Please, please protest, but protest safely.”