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Justice Department to investigate Memphis police's use of force and possible discriminatory policing

Federal officials will also develop guidelines for police chiefs and mayors for when to create specialized units, like the one involved in the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols, a Black man, in January. Nichols died three days later.
Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis
Demonstrators protest the death of Tyre Nichols at a rally Jan. 28 in Memphis, Tenn.Joe Raedle / Getty Images file

The Justice Department is investigating the city of Memphis and its police department for possible violations in its use of force, searches and arrests and whether it engaged in discriminatory policing.

Federal officials announced the civil pattern-or-practice inquiry Thursday, seeking to determine whether there are systemic constitutional or federal violations by the Memphis Police Department.

“Every person is entitled to constitutional and non-discriminatory policing in our country,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said in a statement. “Based on an extensive review of publicly available information and information provided to us, there are grounds to open this investigation now." 

Tyre Nichols.
Tyre Nichols.Courtesy Ben Crump Law

The investigation announced Thursday is separate from a federal criminal civil rights investigation of several Memphis police officers related to the death of Tyre Nichols, officials said.

Police officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Nichols, 29, a Black man, was brutally assaulted by Memphis officers after he was pulled over Jan. 7 for alleged reckless driving. He died three days later. His death spurred citywide protests, with demonstrators stalling highway traffic for hours one night.

Five officers were fired and charged with second-degree murder and other counts. 

The officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — pleaded not guilty in February

Five Memphis police officers were fired in connection with a traffic stop that led to the death of Tyre Nichols. Clockwise from top left: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith and Desmond Mills Jr.
Five Memphis police officers were fired in connection with a traffic stop that led to the death of Tyre Nichols. Clockwise from top left: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith.Memphis Police Department via AP

The officers were members of a special unit, called the Scorpions, short for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods. It launched in 2021 to combat a rise in homicides gangs and to investigate auto thefts.

“The Memphis Police Department will continue to fully cooperate and work closely with the Department of Justice (DOJ) as its members conduct this next phase of their investigation,” Police Chief CJ Davis said in a statement. “As we have said all along, all MPD officers are expected to act in accordance with their oath of office, their training, and department policies at all times.”

Federal officials also said Thursday that in light of Nichols’ death, they would work to develop guidelines for cities across the country to help determine when to create such units and how to monitor them.

“There’s always going to be a need for mission units that are trained and can do what general patrol officers can’t,” said Ed Obayashi, a law enforcement adviser to more than 100 police departments nationwide.

But many specialized units can be aggressive and intimidating in targeting crime, and the behavior sometimes spills over to the rest of the community, he added.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement Thursday that Nichols' death "created enormous pain in the Memphis community and across the country” and that the examination would determine whether the police department "engaged in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct and discriminatory policing based on race, including a dangerously aggressive approach to traffic enforcement.”

Memphis community organizer Amber Sherman said she welcomes the federal investigation if it leads to less traffic enforcement and interaction with police.

“We don’t need a federal investigation to tell us that Black residents are being discriminated against in extremely high numbers or having excessive force used against them,” Sherman said.

She said many people in the community no longer want police officers to conduct traffic stops out of fear of being assaulted or worse.

Memphis attorney Jarrett Spence, who is representing a Black man in a lawsuit that accuses Memphis police officers of assaulting him, said the investigation "is going to produce what I already know."

"Blacks and Hispanics in low-income neighborhoods are subjected to unconstitutional police practices on a regular basis,” Spence said.

The Justice Department is investigating police departments in Phoenix; Mount Vernon, New York; Worcester, Massachusetts; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, as well as the Louisiana State Police and the New York City Police Department’s Special Victims Division.

The Justice Department recently completed investigations in Minneapolis and Louisville, Kentucky, securing agreements in principle with both jurisdictions to negotiate consent decrees to address violations that were found.

CORRECTION (July 27, 2023, 9:30 p.m. ET): A photo caption in a previous version of this article misstated when Tyre Nichols died. He died Jan. 10, not Jan. 28.