Footage of five Memphis, Tennessee, police officers, who were fired after participating in a traffic stop that resulted in the death of Tyre Nichols earlier this month, is expected to be televised during Friday’s prime-time lineup.
It’s unclear how long — and how horrific — the video will be. But since the police department announced that the video would be released, there has been nonstop cable news coverage and constant social media chatter building up anticipation.
“The fact that there’s a countdown to the video, I find to be very disturbing,” said Dr. Amanda Calhoun, an adult and child psychiatry resident at Yale University. Calhoun compared the moment to the country’s long history of making a display of Black death through events like lynching picnics.
Videos revealing deadly moments of police violence have brought nationwide attention to the brutality that Black Americans have protested for generations and fueled a global movement for police reform. There was Eric Garner and Alton Sterling. Philando Castile, George Floyd, Daunte Wright, and Adam Toledo.
Now, Tyre Nichols.
But amid the onslaught of brutal imagery, some Black folks are avoiding the videos.
The adverse mental health effects of consuming violent imagery are well-documented, and psychology experts caution Black Americans to be intentional in deciding whether to watch footage of violence against people who look like them.
The video, which authorities said will be released Friday at 6 p.m., central time, is expected to show the encounter between Nichols and a group of five police officers, during which he was beaten, tasered, and pepper sprayed. The footage was recorded by police, but it’s not clear if it comes from body or dash cameras or both.
The 29-year-old Black man was pulled over on Jan. 7 for alleged reckless driving when a physical altercation ensued and he attempted to run away from the officers, police said. Nichols was hospitalized for three days before he died from his injuries, police said.
“This incident was heinous, reckless, and inhumane,” said Memphis Police Department Chief Cerelyn Davis in a video message posted on Thursday. “And in the vein of transparency, when the video is released in the coming days, you will see this for yourselves.”
Former officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith have been indicted on a number of charges, including second-degree murder and aggravated assault, unauthorized exercise of power, and official misconduct. All the officers involved are Black and are ages 24 to 32.
Symptoms of PTSD
Powerful images have been known to force nationwide reckonings on American racism throughout history. Still, they risk traumatizing viewers and desensitizing the public to the loss of human life at the hands of those who have sworn to protect, experts say. The violent images can have mental health impacts counselors say resemble post-traumatic stress disorder, particularly for Black people.
“Consuming it sticks with us,” said LaDonna Butler, a Florida-based mental health counselor. The body will sense and respond to the videos just as it would lived experiences of trauma, she said.
It is common to experience a heightened sense of sadness, anxiety, anger, frustration, rage, and a diminished sense of safety after viewing violence. Increased irritation about unrelated events could also arise. The emotional trauma may also appear as physical symptoms, experts say.
They may look similar to post-traumatic stress disorder — headaches, nausea, feelings of muscle tightness, and disrupted eating and sleeping. In young children, the psychological distress might appear as bed-wetting. “That is a normal reaction,” said Butler. It’s also possible that some viewers have little to no mental or physical response.
The Stress of Racism
Research shows that viewing violence and death can increase people’s stress response, which can also, in turn, exacerbate physical conditions like heart disease and hypertension. For Black Americans, the toll becomes even more dangerous because they already face disproportionately high rates of poor health outcomes across most chronic illnesses and infectious diseases.
Exposure to stress through viewing or experiencing violence and lived experience with racism and discrimination has a weathering effect on the body, health experts say, making Black folks more susceptible to negative mental and physical health outcomes.
“We can be tied to accountability and justice without putting our bodies and mind and spirit on the line,” said Butler. “We don’t have to consume it.”
Given how much news of Nichols’ death has permeated news sites and social media, avoiding it may be difficult.
“It is going to be playing on people’s phones, social media, and such that we don’t have the option of not being exposed to what is currently popular, unless we dissuade ourselves from modern electronics,” said Keith Taylor, a retired New York Police Department assistant commissioner who is now an adjunct assistant law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “And if you don’t get your information from your phone, it’s going to be in the papers.”
But by watching, we also risk becoming desensitized to the taking of a human life, said Butler, the counselor. The shock that watching such brutality once caused the mind and body may dwindle with constant exposure. When deciding whether to watch the video of Nichols’ death, mental health experts recommend using caution and being intentional about how you consume it.
Viewing with family, friends, and loved ones allows you to fully process what you saw in community with others, which gives space for discussion and grief, Calhoun said. Watching while walking home from work or while engaged in other activities might be more risky.
“That may not give you enough time to process your feelings,” Calhoun said. She also recommends checking in with children and teenagers: “Are they watching this video too? Have they heard of it?”
If you choose to play the video in the house, experts warn that children nearby can hear and see it.
“Don’t forget to talk to our babies,” Butler said. “Don’t forget to remind them that we can help keep them safe.”
A History of Traumatic Images
During the past decade, bystanders have used their cellphones to capture the deaths of numerous Black men and women that thrust the nation into protests for racial justice. Three decades prior to Nichols’ death, a Sony camcorder recorded Los Angeles police officers beating Rodney King, the first viral video to spark outrage — the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
And in the 1950s, after 14-year-old Emmett Till was brutally murdered by the relatives of a woman who accused him of offending her, his mother made sure to keep his casket open at the funeral. “Let the people see what they did to my boy,” she said, according to historic accounts.
Funeral photos of Till’s disfigured body were published on the front page of Jet magazine, and attendants’ grief flooded the media, mobilizing the Civil Rights Movement. Imagery was also critical in the fight against segregation, bringing national attention to police dogs attacking protestors in the South and children tumbling to the ground as police sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses.
In more recent years, as technology advances and the use of social media and smartphones increased, so did the pace at which disturbing images circulate. They can ignite activism and promote transparency within systemically racist industries. But at what cost?
“Everybody is going to respond differently,” Butler said of the Nichols’ video. “Get ready for the range of emotions that might come up.”