From Freddie Gray to Tyre Nichols, early police claims often misleading

An examination of seven prominent deadly cases where initial statements by authorities turned out to be false or incomplete

Matt McClain
Activists hold signs showing Tyre Nichols as attorney Ben Crump speaks on a monitor during a news conference in Memphis in January. Photo by Brandon Dill for The Washington Post.

The first police statement made about Tyre Nichols said he had complained about “shortness of breath” — failing to mention that he had first been Tasered, pepper-sprayed, and beaten for roughly three minutes.

The initial news release about the death of George Floyd said that “officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs” — failing to mention that one officer put his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes as Floyd begged for his life.

And the incident report filed after Breonna Taylor’s death listed her injuries as “none” — failing to mention that she had been shot several times and was pronounced dead on the scene.


A Washington Post analysis of seven high-profile cases in which people died after use of force by police officers — from the fatal injury of Freddie Gray in police custody in 2015 to the death of Nichols last month — found a familiar pattern: The initial police version of events was misleading, incomplete or wrong, with the first accounts consistently in conflict with the full set of facts once they finally emerged.

In cases where the police are later accused of excessive and unwarranted use of force, the first draft of history is almost always written in part by those same officers, who often portray the police in flattering ways and the alleged suspect in less flattering ones.

“The police own the narrative in every interaction they have with the public, because they write up the reports, and sometimes the reports are written to justify the actions the officers have taken and sometimes to cover up what actually happened,” said Philip Stinson, a criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University who researches criminal behavior by police.

The Post analysis found several consistent themes throughout the seven incidents involving Black people who died in encounters with police: The officers were often, but not always, white; the initial police accounts regularly described the victims in terms assuming they were guilty of a crime; and the initial police version frequently used clinical language that seemed to obscure their own role in the incidents.


Police in these cases frequently used passive language in their first statements or reports, with phrases such as “the incident occurred,” “a struggle ensued” or “a confrontation occurred.” Early police statements and reports also often describe the victim with language assuming culpability — “the arrested individual,” “the suspect,” “the defendant.”

“When we use passive language in our own lives, usually we’re trying to create some distance from what happened, whether it’s ‘the milk fell’ instead of ‘I spilled the milk,'” said Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project, a civil rights organization that advocates for victims of police violence. “It’s a very intentional kind of framing to avoid responsibility or push responsibility onto another person.”

Several police departments contacted by The Post said that it is not uncommon for preliminary information to change as more facts become available or an investigation continues. The departments sometimes find themselves balancing the public’s right to information and the goal of transparency, spokespeople said, with the reality that a more complete picture of an incident frequently emerges in the following days, weeks, and months.

“Information about critical incidents often evolves,” said Ryan Luby, a spokesman for the police department in Aurora, Colorado, where 23-year-old Elijah McClain died in 2019 after being forcibly restrained by police and then given a high dose of ketamine by paramedics. “Any perceived omissions of information are not intentional — what is intentional is our desire to communicate with the public.”


Experts on police violence and misbehavior say that initial police statements should be viewed “cautiously” — and that restoring trust with the public will require greater accountability by police departments.

“It’s very damaging to the police department because it does damage to their reputation when they put out these press releases and it turns out they’re false,” Stinson said.

He added that the prevalence of body-camera footage and bystander video have changed the public’s understanding of these incidents: “What’s different now is that people can see the lies with their own eyes by watching videos, whether it’s on cable news, the local TV news or on YouTube,” he said.

Tyre Nichols: ‘Shortness of breath’

Date: Jan. 7, 2023

Location: Memphis

About: The father of a 4-year-old son, Nichols was close to his mother, who described him as a “gentle soul.” Nichols — a 29-year-old Black man — loved skateboarding and photography, as well as watching the sunset.

Taser and pepper spray

Initial version: The tweeted police statement says that during a traffic stop, “a confrontation occurred,” and Nichols “fled the scene on foot.”

The facts: During a stop for an alleged traffic violation, body-camera footage shows an officer pulling Nichols out of the car, where he was pushed to the ground. He pleaded with them to stop. The officers pepper-sprayed him, and as he struggled to his feet, one officer appeared to use a Taser on him, at which point Nichols ran away.

A three-minute beating

Initial version: The initial tweeted police statement says that Nichols “complained of having a shortness of breath.”

The facts: The body-camera footage shows that when the officers caught Nichols, they pinned him to the ground, where they began beating him for roughly three minutes — punching, kicking, and using a baton to strike him — as he screamed and moaned in pain, crying out “Mom!” several times. An officer struck Nichols in the head at least five times. Over 13 minutes, officers gave Nichols more than 70 contradictory and confusing commands, according to a New York Times analysis. The initial police statement fails to mention that Nichols had been pepper-sprayed, Tasered, and beaten, and that he had appeared slumped over and unable to stand on his own following the incident.


The ambulance ride

Initial version: The tweeted police statement says an ambulance was called and transported Nichols to St. Francis Hospital in “critical condition.”

The facts: After the beating, officers propped Nichols against a police car, and one asked the fire department to come to the scene. A groaning Nichols repeatedly slumped and at times fell over on his side. It took 22 minutes from the time Nichols was beaten and taken into custody for the arrival of an ambulance, which then took him to St. Francis Hospital.

A photo released by Nichols’s family shows him in the hospital, hooked up to breathing tubes with his eyes swollen shut and his nose mangled from the beating. Nichols died three days later, on Jan. 10.

Police outcome

Thirteen days after the incident, the Memphis Police Department fired the five officers — all of whom are Black — involved in Nichols’s arrest. They are facing charges of second-degree murder as well as others, including aggravated assault and aggravated kidnapping. Two more Memphis police officers, including one who is White, were later disciplined. A fire department lieutenant and two emergency medical technicians were also fired, and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Justice Department are investigating the death.

“All initial information that is released on all incidents is preliminary information,” a Memphis Police Department spokeswoman wrote in an email. “As investigations continue more information is available. Initial releases are based on information received at the time.”

George Floyd: ‘Suffering medical distress’

Date: May 25, 2020

Location: Minneapolis

About: Floyd, 46, was a Houston native with five children who had been a star basketball and football player in high school. He struggled with addiction and had done stints in jail, but had dreamed of gaining custody of his then-6-year-old daughter.


Nine minutes, 29 seconds

Initial version: “He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress,” the statement said.

The facts: When first confronted in his car, Floyd appeared panicked, calling the officers “sir” and “Mr. Officer” and asking them not to kill him. After putting his hands up, he asked, “What do I do, though?” body-cam video showed. He then resisted getting in the police car, repeatedly saying, “I’m claustrophobic.”

After a struggle, the officers pinned him to the ground, a bystander’s video showed, along with other footage and body-cam video. Officer Derek Chauvin put his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, as Floyd begged for his life and said he could not breathe at least 25 times.

‘They’ll kill me’

Initial version: “Officers called for an ambulance,” the police statement said.

The facts: Floyd gasped, “They’ll kill me” shortly before he went motionless. Though bystanders asked Chauvin to get off Floyd or check his pulse, he continued kneeling on Floyd’s neck for at least two minutes after another officer found Floyd did not have a pulse, and stayed there until after the ambulance arrived. Medical responders put Floyd on a stretcher and into an ambulance, nearly three minutes elapsing, before they ordered an officer to start CPR.

Police outcome

Chauvin, who was fired, was convicted of murder and manslaughter by a Minnesota jury. He was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison. He also pleaded guilty to federal charges and in July was sentenced to more than 20 years in prison. Three other former officers who participated in the arrest, Tou Thao, J. Alexander Kueng, and Thomas Lane, were found guilty on federal charges of violating Floyd’s civil rights. Their sentences ranged from 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 years in prison. They also face state charges; Kueng and Lane pleaded guilty, and Thao’s case is pending before a judge after the parties agreed to a trial based on written stipulations.


The Minneapolis Police Department did not respond to requests for comment.

Breonna Taylor: ‘Injuries: None’

Date: March 13, 2020

Location: Louisville

About: Taylor, 26, was an emergency medical technician who planned to become a nurse. She loved scary movies, card games, and her family.

‘Met by gunfire’

Initial version: “Officers knocked on the door several times and announced their presence as police who were there with a search warrant. The officers forced entry into the exterior door and were immediately met by gunfire,” Louisville police spokesman Ted Eidem said. One officer was shot.

The facts: Officers broke into Taylor’s apartment in the middle of the night, using a search warrant that was later found to have contained false information. Kenneth Walker, Taylor’s boyfriend, has disputed the police’s claim that they announced themselves before coming in, saying that they did not respond when Taylor asked, “Who is it?” He has said he did not know the intruders were police when he shot once at them. (Charges against Walker were later dismissed by a judge.)

‘An unresponsive woman’

Initial version: All three officers “returned fire” before moving “themselves to safety,” Eidem said. After the officers arrested Walker, SWAT officers “responded and searched the residence, finding an unresponsive woman who was later pronounced dead,” Eidem said. Asked by a reporter about the woman, he added, “The victim who died, we’re still working through what her involvement was on the narcotics investigation.”

The facts: The three officers fired a total of 32 shots, killing Taylor.

A former Louisville detective, Kelly Goodlett, admitted in a guilty plea in August 2022 to helping falsify the search warrant and filing a false report. The warrant included allegations that police had verified that Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, was receiving packages related to drug activity — which an internal investigation later determined was false.


The incident report

Initial version: The incident report listed Taylor’s injuries as “none” and said police did not force entry into her apartment.

The facts: Police used a battering ram to break down the front door and said at the March 13 news conference that officers “forced entry.” Taylor was shot several times in the chest, abdomen, arm, thigh, and foot, an autopsy showed, and was pronounced dead on the scene.

Police outcome

State officials didn’t charge anyone in Taylor’s death, and a Kentucky grand jury was not presented with homicide charges against three officers. Brett Hankison, the only one who went to trial, was charged with endangering Taylor’s neighbors and was found not guilty. In August, the Justice Department filed federal civil rights charges against four former officers who were involved, one of whom pleaded guilty.

Jonathan Mattingly, the officer who was shot by Walker, was cleared by the police chief at the time and retired. The other five officers were fired, including Myles Cosgrove, whom an FBI investigation found had fired the bullet that killed Taylor.

Louisville Metro Police Department spokeswoman Alicia Smiley said in an emailed statement that the department has made “numerous personnel and policy changes” since Taylor’s killing and that it therefore could not respond to statements from three years ago.”

The department, Smiley said, “is currently on a trajectory that looks nothing like 2020.”

Elijah McClain: ‘Suspicious person’

Date: Aug. 24, 2019

Location: Aurora, Colorado

About: McClain, 23, was a massage therapist, described by those who knew him as a gentle person who was an oddball and “believed in humanity.” McClain loved animals and would sometimes play his violin to cats and dogs at a local animal shelter, the Colorado Sentinel reported.


‘A struggle ensued’

Initial version: “The male resisted contact, a struggle ensued, and he was taken into custody,” a police statement said. “Due to the level of physical force applied while restraining the subject and his agitated mental state,” the officers called paramedics, police said.

The facts: An investigation by the city found that McClain first told the officers he was on his way home and asked them to let go of him — and found that the officers had no legal justification for stopping, frisking, or using chokeholds on McClain.

As McClain repeatedly apologized, pleaded, cried out in pain, and said he couldn’t breathe, the officers held, sat, and knelt on him. “I was just going home . . . I’m an introvert and I’m different,” McClain said. “That’s all I was doing. I’m so sorry.”

A deadly dose

Initial version: “According to [Aurora Fire Rescue], consistent with their accepted protocol, a standard medication routinely utilized to reduce agitation was administered and reduced the exhibited anxiety,” the statement said. “Several minutes later during the transport to the hospital, the patient suffered a cardiac arrest, and lifesaving measures were initiated.”

The facts: Emergency responders from Aurora Fire Rescue did not treat McClain for several minutes after they arrived, the investigation found, even as McClain was moaning, gagging, and gasping. Then, the paramedics did not examine McClain but gave him ketamine at a higher dose than was necessary for McClain’s size, which would prove lethal. The decision was based on their acceptance of the police assessment that he was suffering from “excited delirium,” without conducting an independent diagnosis, even though McClain had not moved or made any noise for a full minute.


‘Cause of Death: Undetermined’

Initial version: The original autopsy listed McClain’s cause of death as “Undetermined.”

The facts: An amended autopsy was conducted after it came to light that police had withheld body-camera video and other evidence during the first autopsy. The new autopsy concluded McClain died of the too-high dose of ketamine.

Police outcome

A Colorado grand jury indicted Aurora Fire Rescue paramedics Lt. Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper, Aurora Police Department officers Randy Roedema and Nathan Woodyard, and former officer Jason Rosenblatt, bringing criminal charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. They all pleaded not guilty in county court last month, the Associated Press reported. Roedema and Woodyard are on unpaid administrative leave.

Luby, the Aurora Police Department spokesman, said McClain’s death had been a “catalyst” for a review of the department’s policies, including how it releases information “following critical incidents.” He said authorities in McClain’s case followed their initial statement with more detailed updates.

Walter Scott: ‘It wasn’t like that’

Date: April 4, 2015

Location: North Charleston, South Carolina

About: Scott, 50, had four children and enjoyed dancing. He had served in the Coast Guard and was discharged under honorable conditions after a drug offense.

The Taser

Initial version: After pulling Scott over for a broken taillight, officer Michael Slager shot his Taser at Scott, and Scott took the officer’s Taser, according to the initial police account.

The facts: Video recorded by a bystander showed that the two men scuffle after Slager uses his Taser, then Scott tries to run away. After Slager shoots Scott, the officer is seen picking up his Taser and putting it next to Scott’s body.


The shooting

Initial version: Scott was coming toward Slager with a Taser when Slager shot him.

The facts: Scott was unarmed and running away when Slager shot at him multiple times, hitting him in the back and killing him, the bystander video showed.

The person who filmed the video, Feidin Santana, said afterward that he decided to release it after seeing news reports about what police were saying. “I saw the police report, I read it. It wasn’t like that, the way they were saying,” he told MSNBC.

Police outcome

After Santana publicized the video three days after the shooting, the police department fired Slager and charged him with murder. Authorities apologized to Scott’s family, with North Charleston Mayor R. Keith Summey saying, “When you’re wrong, you’re wrong.”

Slager was sentenced to 20 years in prison in a federal case in which a judge concluded Slager was guilty of second-degree murder. Before that, Slager’s state murder trial ended with a deadlocked jury, and the charge was resolved in a plea deal that included a guilty plea to a federal civil rights charge.

Through a spokesman, North Charleston Police Chief Reginald L. Burgess, who became chief in 2018, declined to comment.

Laquan McDonald: ‘A very serious threat’

Age: 17

Date: Oct. 20, 2014

Location: Chicago

About: Born to a teenage mother and an absent father, McDonald had a difficult childhood, which included two stints in foster homes. Those who knew McDonald described him as a jokester and hugger who liked to rap and who was especially protective of his younger sister.

‘Swinging the knife’

Initial version: Initial police reports said that McDonald lunged at officers “swinging the knife in an aggressive, exaggerated manner.” Pat Camden, at the time the spokesman for the Chicago Fraternal Order of Police, described McDonald as “somebody with a knife in a crazed condition.”


“He is a very serious threat to the officers, and he leaves them no choice at that point but to defend themselves,” Camden said.

The facts: Graphic video footage released more than a year after the incident shows McDonald veering away from the officers when officer Jason Van Dyke opens fire.

16 shots fired

Initial version: Several hours after the shooting, the Chicago Police Department released a statement saying that McDonald had refused to drop his knife and “continued to approach the officers.” The statement continued that “as a result of this action, the officer discharged his weapon striking the offender.”

The facts: The video footage shows that Van Dyke began shooting at McDonald within seconds of arriving on the scene. An autopsy report released later found that Van Dyke emptied his entire clip, shooting McDonald 16 times. The report also found that McDonald, who was pronounced dead at a hospital, had PCP in his system.

‘Attempting to get up’

Initial version: An initial police report states that Van Dyke fired at McDonald “to stop the attack.” The report then states that McDonald fell to the ground but continued to move and grasp his knife, and that Van Dyke “continued to fire his weapon at McDonald as McDonald was on the ground, as McDonald appeared to be attempting to get up, all the while continuing to point the knife at Van Dyke.”

The facts: The video footage shows McDonald falling to the ground almost instantly and barely moving once he’s curled on the ground, as Van Dyke continues to fire at his prone body.


Police outcome

In 2018, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and 16 counts of aggravated battery. In 2019, a judge sentenced Van Dyke to six years and nine months. He was released from prison last February, after serving less than half of his sentence.

In 2015, a year after the incident, the Chicago City Council also approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family.

The Chicago Police Department did not respond to several requests for comment.

Freddie Gray: ‘Arrested without force’

Age: 25

Date: April 12, 2015

Location: Baltimore

About: Friends described Gray, who was nicknamed “Pepper,” as loyal and warm, humorous and happy. Gray grew up in an impoverished neighborhood on Baltimore’s west side and had a difficult upbringing.

‘Folded like a pretzel’

Initial version: The initial charging document says, “The defendant was arrested without force or incident.”

The facts: Officers apprehended Gray after a foot chase, and bystander cellphone video shows the officers holding Gray, facedown on the ground, with his hands cuffed behind his back. Gray can be heard screaming and moaning. One bystander video shows officers on top of Gray, with their knees in his back. Kevin Moore, a witness who shot a video that went viral, also described an officer who was much larger than Gray putting a knee on Gray’s neck, and later said the police had Gray “folded up like a piece of origami — they had him folded like a pretzel.”

A deadly van ride

Initial version: The charging document says a van took Gray to the Western District police station.

The facts: Bystander video shows officers dragging Gray — his legs limp — to a police van and loading him into the back. In the van, Gray was handcuffed, shackled and not secured by a seat belt. At one point, Gray said he could not breathe and at least twice requested medical help, but the officers did not provide any medical assistance, according to the case prosecutors presented in court.


The station is roughly a half-mile from the site of Gray’s arrest. But the van ride during which Gray was fatally injured took at least 30 minutes, in part because officers made six stops, several of which they disclosed only as the investigation progressed. The police revealed the fourth stop only after surveillance video captured images of the van.

A lawful knife

Initial version: Police said that Gray was arrested for possession of an illegal switchblade, described in the charging document as “a spring-assisted, one-hand operated knife.”

The facts: Marilyn J. Mosby, the former state’s attorney for Baltimore City who filed charges against the six officers, said, “The knife was not a switchblade and is lawful under Maryland law.”

Police outcome

Six officers were charged with crimes, ranging from reckless endangerment to manslaughter to murder. Ultimately, none of the officers were convicted.

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore Police Department said the current administration is unable to provide insight into information on the Gray incident given by the former police commissioner and his administration.

“However, I will note that in the interest of transparency as well as the public’s right and need to know about an ongoing investigation, preliminary information can change,” she wrote.

The Washington Post’s Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

Memphis police videos show the violent confrontation after officers stopped Tyre Nichols for an alleged traffic violation on Jan. 7. Nichols later died. (The Washington Post)

This unedited bodycam footage from officer J. Alexander Kueng shows the fatal arrest of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. (The Washington Post)


The dash cam from North Charleston, S.C., police officer Michael Slager’s vehicle shows the initial traffic stop and interaction that preceded Slager shooting and killing Walter Scott. (The Washington Post)

Editor’s note: This video contains graphic content. Chicago police released October 2014 video of police shooting Laquan McDonald, a Black 17-year-old. Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.(The Washington Post)


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