Video of Tyre Nichols Beating Raises Questions About Medical Response

MEMPHIS — Tyre Nichols writhed in pain on the pavement after being beaten by Memphis police officers. His back was against a police car, his hands were cuffed and his face was bloody. He was groaning, and he kept falling over.

A few feet away, two emergency medical workers looked on. They helped Mr. Nichols sit up a few times after he had slumped to his side, but then, for nearly seven minutes, they did not touch him. At one point, they walked away.

Mr. Nichols, a father and FedEx worker who liked photography and skateboarding, died in a hospital three days later. Five officers were fired and have been charged with second-degree murder in his death.

Videos of the Jan. 7 beating released on Friday have led people to scrutinize those officers’ actions frame by frame. But the footage has also turned the public’s attention to the emergency medical workers who first arrived on the scene after the beating, raising the question of whether they should or could have done more to help Mr. Nichols.

“It seems like they did not have the decent humanity to render aid to a man who was, at first, calling for this mother, but then laying against the car,” said JB Smiley Jr., the vice chairman of the Memphis City Council.

Both of the medical workers who arrived first to tend to Mr. Nichols appeared to be emergency medical technicians with the Memphis Fire Department. Fire E.M.T.s often respond more quickly than ambulance crews to emergency calls, but their job is largely to carry out fundamental first aid: conducting a basic neurological assessment, making sure patients can breathe, checking their vital signs and stemming any major bleeding.

Qwanesha Ward, a spokeswoman for the Fire Department, said on Friday that the department had suspended two of its E.M.T.s who had treated Mr. Nichols and that an investigation was expected to wrap up early this week. She declined to identify the medics.

To many in Memphis, the videos were troubling, appearing to show the medical workers responding without urgency to Mr. Nichols’s suffering.

An investigation into the response by E.M.T.s is expected to be completed early this week. Credit…City of Memphis, via Associated Press

Experts in emergency medicine noted that the first medics on a scene were often the least trained and frequently relied in part on the police — who, in this case, said Mr. Nichols was on drugs — to understand a patient’s condition.

Dr. Sean Montgomery, a trauma expert at Duke University’s medical school, said that it was difficult to evaluate the medical response, given the low quality of the nearby surveillance camera, but that the responding medical personnel did not seem to have followed standard protocol, which calls for stopping any major bleeding and then assessing a patient’s airway and breathing.

More on the Death of Tyre Nichols

  • A Complex Conversation: The five Memphis officers charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols, a young Black man, are also Black, complicating the anguish and the efforts at police reform.
  • Reactions: The release of video footage of the fatal encounter drew horror and disgust from law enforcement officials, lawmakers and Black Lives Matter activists.
  • A National Shift: The response from Memphis officials to Mr. Nichols’s death reflected how cities across the country are moving faster and speaking critically when officers are accused of beatings.
  • The Responsibility of Watching: The video of Memphis police beating Mr. Nichols challenges public complacency — and complicity, A.O. Scott writes. What are our duties as citizens and as human beings?

He said it was not clear that anyone had begun to fully assess Mr. Nichols, in line with those standards, until about 15 minutes after the medics had arrived. That is when medics can be seen going into their bag of tools and treatments. At that point, it had been 21 minutes since an officer last kicked Mr. Nichols.

“The patient clearly seems to be in shock and have trouble breathing, even with the poor camera view,” Dr. Montgomery wrote in an email, adding that emergency response crews are often undertrained and underfunded.

Dr. Alan Tyroch, the chief of surgery and trauma at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso, said he had watched a video of the response several times but had found the quality so poor that it was nearly impossible to evaluate what medical care was being provided, or by whom.

“Nobody really knows except the people who were there,” he said.

An ambulance pulled up to the scene more than 25 minutes after the police officers had stopped beating Mr. Nichols. Medical response times have been a problem in many cities, including Memphis, where officials have said they are experiencing a rise in 911 calls, straining the system.

In recent years, the Memphis firefighters’ union has tried to calm fears about slow response times by noting that Fire Department E.M.T.s often show up before more skilled paramedics and ambulance units do. Union officials did not respond to inquiries, and the Fire Department did not respond to questions about the specifics of its response.

Mr. Nichols suffered his fatal injuries after police officers kicked, punched and used a baton to beat him. They said later that they had pulled him over because he was driving recklessly. The police had pulled him out of his car and ordered him onto the ground, continuing to yell at him and threaten him even as he lay on his side, pleading with them to stop. When one officer pepper-sprayed him, he got up and ran in the direction of his mother’s house, but officers caught him about 200 feet from her home and began to pummel him.

Afterward, some officers dragged a handcuffed Mr. Nichols to a police car and propped him up against it. In the first five minutes that the medics were on the scene, Mr. Nichols fell to his side six times. The medics helped him up several times and at one point asked a police officer to shine a light on him.

A vigil for Mr. Nichols in Memphis on Thursday. Credit…Brad J. Vest for The New York Times

At that point, several Memphis officers can be heard insisting that Mr. Nichols, 29, must be high, and they sound surprised to have learned that nothing was found in his pockets or in the car.

Some laughed as they recalled their assault in detail. “Man, I was hitting him with straight haymakers, dog,” one said. It is not clear from the body camera videos whether the medics heard those conversations.

At times, the medics appear to defer to the police on scene, standing back at one point as a police officer asked Mr. Nichols what drugs he had taken. Mr. Nichols largely groaned in response, though twice he appears to answer “alcohol.”

For about the next 6 minutes and 40 seconds, no one touches Mr. Nichols as he rolls back and forth on the pavement.

The official cause of Mr. Nichols’s death has not been released by the Shelby County medical examiner’s office. The family said it had commissioned a separate, private autopsy that determined he had suffered from extensive bleeding.

When a young person like Mr. Nichols dies three days after a beating involving blows to the head, Dr. Montgomery said, brain injuries are the most likely cause. He said that, based on video of the beating, Mr. Nichols had likely been at risk for severe traumatic brain injury, rib fractures, collapsed lungs and internal bleeding.

Dr. Montgomery said it was not easy to say whether getting Mr. Nichols into an ambulance or to the hospital more quickly would have made a difference, though some cases, such as a brain injury, would have been helped by early surgery.

“Some brain injuries are too severe for medical care to improve them,” he added. “However, if you manage the other injuries well, the brain will do better. For example, if the patient is not breathing well, the brain will have a much worse outcome.”

The police in Memphis have said that Mr. Nichols was taken to the hospital after complaining about shortness of breath.

At a march on Saturday in response to the police killing, some Memphis residents said they were nearly as disturbed by the medical response as they were by the officers’ actions. Towanna Murphy, who operates a radio station in Memphis, said the medics needed to be held accountable.

“When you see somebody laying there,” Ms. Murphy said, “you’re supposed to give medical treatment right away.”

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