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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Video of Tyre Nichols beating raises questions about medical response


With five officers charged with murder, community leaders are now trying to assess how the Scorpion strike team that was created to ease the violence in Memphis had instead inflicted an attack so brutal that the police chief herself called it “heinous” and “inhumane.”


By NICHOLAS BOGEL-BURROUGHS, GINA KOLATA and MARK WALKER


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 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.


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 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 Nichols.


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


Both of the medical workers who arrived first to tend to Nichols appeared to be emergency medical technicians with the Memphis Fire Department. Fire EMTs 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 spokesperson for the Fire Department, said Friday that the department had suspended two of its EMTs who had treated 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 Nichols’ suffering.


Experts in emergency medicine noted that the first medics on a scene were often the least trained and frequently relied in part on police — who, in this case, said Nichols, 29, 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.


He said it was not clear that anyone had begun to fully assess 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 Nichols.


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


Dr. Alan Tyroch, 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 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 EMTs 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.


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. 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 Nichols to a police car and propped him up against it. In the first five minutes that the medics were on the scene, 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.


Among the seven felony charges filed against each of the officers is an accusation that they refrained from performing a duty that was either imposed by law or was inherent as part of their jobs. This could cover a range of behavior, but the Shelby County district attorney, Steven J. Mulroy, suggested at a news conference last week that the charge had to do in part with their communications with medical officials.


On-duty police officers, Mulroy said, have a duty “to prevent official misconduct and to accurately report information to medical personnel who show up.”


The officers have not entered a plea. Lawyers for the officers have cautioned people to wait for more details before judging them. Blake Ballin, who represents Desmond Mills Jr., one of the five officers, said in a statement that the videos have “produced as many questions as they have answers.”


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


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


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


Montgomery said it was not easy to say whether getting 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.”


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


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