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CNN One Thing

You’ve been overwhelmed with headlines all week – what's worth a closer look? One Thing takes you into the story and helps you make sense of the news everyone's been talking about. Each Sunday, host David Rind interviews one of CNN’s world-class reporters to tell us what they've found – and why it matters. From the team behind CNN 5 Things.

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What Tyre Nichols Could Change About Policing
CNN One Thing
Feb 5, 2023

Calls for police reform have grown louder in the wake of the brutal beating that led to the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis - especially after we learned that the first police report in the case did not match the video footage released by authorities. We examine why some are calling the quick decision to charge the officers involved a “blueprint” and look at the role specialized crime fighting units can sometimes play in these deadly encounters. 

Guest: Shimon Prokupecz, CNN Senior Crime and Justice Correspondent

Episode Transcript
David Rind
Hey, just a quick note before we start. This week's episode contains graphic descriptions of police violence, and you're going to hear some audio with profanity. So please take care while listening.
David Rind
All right. Here's the show. By all accounts, Tyre Nichols loves skateboarding. He loved photography. He loved his four year old son. And we know he loved his mother. We know because we heard it we heard it on that body cam video as a group of Memphis police officers violently beat him, striking him at least nine times in less than 4 minutes. Nichols was screaming out for his mother he would die in the hospital days later. And there was a moment at his funeral service last week that really stood out to me amid calls to action from activists and Vice President Kamala Harris. Nichols' sister made it a point to highlight his manners and politeness, even as police beat him.
Nichols' sister
Always was. He asked them to please stop. And they didn't.
David Rind
And his mother, RowVaughn Wells, also speaking through tears, said she hopes her son's death can be more than just another name on an ever growing list of black men and women killed by police.
Nichols' mother
Obviously, the only thing that's keeping me going this is the fact that I really, truly believe my son was sent here on an assignment from God.
David Rind
But I guess this week is CNN's senior crime and justice correspondent Shimon Prokupecz. We're going to talk about what we know about the initial police report and how it differs from the video. How specialized crime units can get out of control. And if what happened in Memphis really is a blueprint for the rest of the country. From CNN, this is one thing. I'm David Rind.
David Rind
So, Shimon, you were in Memphis when this video footage was initially released. What have we learned since then?
Shimon Prockupez
Well, one of the key things I think we learned is that the initial accounts from the police and the initial accounts from the police report certainly didn't reflect what actually happened. And this police report that has not been officially released by city officials, Memphis police surfaced online. The contents of it have been confirmed by the district attorney there in Memphis. And what it shows is that initially in the initial police report, an officer describes Tyre Nichols as the aggressor. He was being more aggressive with the police, that the police were the victims in this. And essentially paints this picture that Tyre was the suspect was the bad guy here, and the police were just trying to do their jobs and apprehend him. A lot has been made of the fact that this report doesn't say anything about the officers kicking and punching and assaulting Tyre. But you usually don't see that in a report like this, especially when you believe that officers here may not be telling the truth. And there are some some indications of that, according to the family, which says when they were first told about what happened to Tyre, that the cops were trying to cover it up.
I know...I see his ass running!
Shimon Prockupez
So after the beating, the officers all captured on body cameras, standing around at times laughing.
So I took his ass to the ground.
Shimon Prockupez
At times, joking.
Shimon Prockupez
Then talking to each other, trying to argue some kind of explanation or perhaps justification for why they stop Tyree.
Then he was going for my gun, too so I'm like... He grabbed Mark gun...
Shimon Prockupez
Both officers and talking about it, even grabbed their guns as they're describing him trying to grab their gun.
Reached for Mark gun and I slammed him tot the car... he literally had his hand on my gun.
Shimon Prockupez
Another officer describes Tyree taking a swing at him.
Motherfucker swung, pow! Almost hit me.
Shimon Prockupez
All, of course, it seems at this point trying to give justification for what happened, for the stop trying to depict that somehow he was the aggressor here.
Look at him, he's definitely high as a kite!... sit up for me.
David Rind
And obviously from from all the video we've seen and all we know, there's just no evidence to back that up.
Shimon Prockupez
No. And at this point, at this point, there is no evidence of that, certainly not on the body camera footage that we've seen in the initial encounter. There was there's no indication that Tyree is trying to grab at the officer's guns. I mean, they're holding his hands. They pepper spray him. They tase him. He gets free and then runs away.
David Rind
So obviously, we haven't seen the full police report yet. But when we see this happen, when the police report so contradicts the video that everyone can see, like what does that do to the justice system, like beyond obviously the pain that victims families feel? Like what? What happens when they.
Shimon Prockupez
Yeah, and beyond just the police report because we don't always get access to this information, the actual police report and we haven't yet in this case. But beyond that, when you think about the the press statement, the statement that went out to the media initially, the day after the morning after this happened on January 8th, at that point, there were enough people in the Memphis Police Department who knew how serious this was. And what they write is that Tyree was stopped because of reckless driving, that he complained of shortness of breath.
David Rind
Shortness of breath.
Shimon Prockupez
Wow. Yeah. And then they took him to the hospital and sadly, he died. Obviously, that's not what happened.
David Rind
Not even close.
Shimon Prockupez
Right. And we never see him complain of shortness of breath because at one point he can't even talk anymore. He's so injured. So it raises concerns because we saw a very similar situation in the George Floyd incident.
Josh Campbell
The official police report documenting the arrest of George Floyd simply stated officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.
Shimon Prockupez
They, too, painted a completely different picture than what officers were doing in those moments when George Floyd died.
Josh Campbell
No mention of Floyd being handcuffed with a knee on his neck for over 9 minutes.
Shimon Prockupez
And time and time again, we see this in these cases. Even in Breonna Taylor, the the initial story wasn't right, was inaccurate.
Josh Campbell
The initial police report stated there were no injuries and no forced entry. Taylor was shot at least eight times and police used a battering ram to execute their no knock warrant.
Shimon Prockupez
You know, I'm one of these people. And when I think about reporting on deadly police encounters, you know, I always stress that you should not take what the police say on the first account as the truth in a way or the full story, because there's always more to the story. And nine out of ten times the people who are putting out these statements are public information officers, people who work in the press office, police officers who work in the press office, and they don't always get full information. And of course, it erodes trust. It erodes trust in the community. It erodes trust in the media. And that's why I always say you have to always ask hard questions. You have to keep pushing to make sure that what they're saying there is the truth. And at the Tyree Nichols case, though, you know, credit to the Memphis Police Department in that fairly quickly the officers were placed on leave.
David Rind
This is pretty abnormal in these cases to see charges be brought so quickly.
Shimon Prockupez
Yeah, but one of the benefits that the Memphis Police Department has is they just their city has different rules. Not every police department can just turn around and fire their officers.
David Rind
Things like processes.
Shimon Prockupez
Process because of the laws and state laws. And, you know, police unions all across the country are very powerful. And of course, their interest is to protect their officers. So that's why it takes longer for some of these officers to be fired and other police departments. And that's why so many are calling this as a blueprint.
Benjamin Crump
Because we have to remember that in less than 20 days.
Shimon Prockupez
You've heard Tyree Nichols family talk about this. You heard Ben Crump.
Benjamin Crump
They were terminated. They were arrested and they were charged.
Shimon Prockupez
As well as other police reformers, people fighting for justice, that this should be the blueprint for other police departments and other law enforcement agencies across the country.
Benjamin Crump
Where Laquan McDonald was killed in Chicago and by white police officers. It's important that a community sees swift justice, too.
Shimon Prockupez
But a lot would have to change from city to city and state to state for that to happen.
David Rind
There's been a lot of talk about a culture, the broader culture of police as it relates to this. And we saw this specialized unit in Memphis, the Scorpion unit, got disbanded in the wake of this. What do we know about how these specialized units from department to department kind of impact what's kind of going on on the street?
Shimon Prockupez
Right. So this is a crime fighting tool for police departments all across the country. They use these specialized units in New York City. They're called anti-crime, you know, but they are predominantly street crime units and they go after crime. They don't respond to 911 calls. They are out there aggressively looking for criminals, people committing crimes. And in Memphis, one of the big things is theft, car theft, auto theft, burglaries, everyday kind of crimes that really affect people. And this is a tool that's used in many police departments, is that you take officers, you put them in unmarked cars and you apprehend and stop crime because of, you know, criminals who may be looking out for a marked police car. They will not see this unmarked police car. The problem is, is that many of these units eventually find themselves in trouble. When you look back at other cities, like in New York City, they had what was called a street crime unit in 1999. They were out looking for, they say it was a rape suspect. They encountered a black man outside his apartment in the Bronx and shot him 41 times. They believed he was armed. And it led to all sorts of changes in New York City that that unit was discontinued, The officers were charged and ultimately they were cleared at trial. But the Department of Justice did a big review of that unit and they found that their practices basically were unsafe and were wrong. And so that unit went away.
Brynn Gringas
It was plainclothes cops who killed Sean Bell the morning of his wedding. And more recently, Eric Garner died during an arrest by a plainclothes officer in 2014.
Shimon Prockupez
But what happens is these units go away and then they find a new name.
Brynn Gringas
Mayor Eric Adams telling New Yorkers.
Mayor Eric Adams
We won't go back to the bad old days.
Brynn Gringas
But he does want to make one old thing new again, reviving a version of the NYPD plainclothes squad to suppress gun violence. This time around, officers won't be in uniform, but they will be identifiable by their clothing, according to the mayor's plan. They'll have specialized training and officers will wear body cameras.
David Rind
Like if the arrest numbers go up in the short term, but the tactics are becoming an issue, then that's where you kind of get into the cycle.
Shimon Prockupez
Correct. And one of the things with this unit, the Scorpion unit in Memphis, with this situation. From everything we can tell, there doesn't appear. To be a supervisor. Their presence while these officers are making this stop and having this horrific interaction with Tyree Nichols, these are all officers. We don't see a sergeant, a lieutenant, some kind of supervisor watching them in a lot of other cities within these units. There's always a supervisor. And that's something that perhaps will change as well for all cities to make sure that they have a supervisor present with these units.
David Rind
And so lastly, I think a lot of people have wondered, wasn't body camera supposed to deter this kind of stuff?
Shimon Prockupez
Yeah, you would think. And it's so hard to believe. And to understand just why and what was going through their mind at the time. The officers that they felt the need to behave this way and the idea perhaps that they thought they would get away with it, that they were justified in doing what they were doing, that no one perhaps, maybe would care to look to see what happened. It's hard to understand when you look at this video, what they were thinking and why, and then the way they behaved after standing around laughing, seemingly unaware of just life and all of this on tape and as if they didn't care.
David Rind
Right. It's just a tragic situation. Shimon Thank you so much.
Shimon Prockupez
David Rind
One Thing is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me David Rind. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer. Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. And Abby Fentress Swanson is the executive producer of CNN Audio. Special thanks this week to Matthew Friedman. Thank you for listening. We'll be back next Sunday. Talk to you then.