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COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — In the wake of video footage released showing Memphis police officers’ violent, ultimately fatal beating of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop in early January, civil rights attorneys, community leaders and faith leaders in Columbus told NBC4 their thoughts on the officers’ actions and what comes next.
The discussion brought together Rev. Tim Ahrens of First Congregational United Church of Christ; attorney Fanon A. Rucker, a former judge and prosecutor; Chenelle Jones, assistant dean of community engagement and the chair of public safety programs at Franklin University; and civil rights attorneys Maddie Rettig and Fred Gittes.
Ahrens called the videos, which showed five Memphis police officers kicking, hitting and screaming at Nichols while he pleaded with them, a clear example of “gang violence.”
“There’s no gang violence videos that I’ve seen recently that match this gang violence against this man,” Ahrens said.
The legal experts NBC4 spoke with agreed — each condemned every act, from the beginning of the traffic stop to the end. Three unmarked police vehicles blocked in Nichols’ car while an officer dragged him out of his seat, something the experts said did not constitute a “normal traffic stop.”
“He didn’t have a weapon. He didn’t brandish a weapon. Why did it have to come to this?” said Gittes, a seasoned civil rights attorney.
The group also discussed what they called the heinous display of a group effort to inflict pain, with other officers bearing witness to the beating and the aftermath and failing to render aid.
“Why are we seeing a whole group of officers stand around and witness such a brutal beatdown?” Rettig asked.
Rucker likened Nichols’ death to the police beating of Rodney King. In fact, it was the protests in Los Angeles more than 30 years ago that inspired Rucker to pursue a career in civil rights law.
In a second confrontation with police, officers held Nichols to the ground. Officer body camera footage shows police striking and pepper-spraying Nichols while he repeatedly called out for his mother — who lived in the same neighborhood where Nichols was stopped, according to his family’s attorneys.
Jones said that other law enforcement officers should feel outraged at the Memphis officers’ actions — they reflect on police everywhere, she said. She said adding training is insufficient to address a wide-reaching issue; rather, an overhaul of how officers are trained is necessary to prevent further police violence.
One day before the videos were released, five officers who beat Nichols were charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping. Hours after the video was released, the Shelby County Sheriff announced two deputies were relieved of duty pending administrative investigations into their involvement in Nichols’ death.
“What we hope to see here for justice’s sake is convictions and long sentences, because what we saw was absolutely appalling and purely criminal,” said Rucker.
As NBC4 spoke with experts and community leaders, law enforcement and civil leaders across Columbus and Ohio shared their reactions to the videos of Nichols’ beating Friday evening.
In Columbus, Police Chief Elaine Bryant said in a statement she was “heartbroken and saddened” after watching videos of Memphis police officers attacking Nichols, who died three days after the beating.
“We respect our community’s right to voice their frustration and will give them the space to do so peacefully,” Bryant said. “We will continue to listen and work together to build trust. I am committed to ensuring this agency sets the standard for police and community relationships.”
Robert Clark, director of the Columbus Department of Public Safety, said in a statement he was praying for Nichols’ family.
“I am sickened by what I just witnessed,” Clark said. “The utter lack of humanity displayed by these officers flies in the face of the oath taken by law enforcement everywhere.”
And in a Tweet Friday night, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost said he wept while watching the videos and called for justice.
“Beating a restrained suspect is never OK,” Yost wrote. “It is not law enforcement.”