The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday it will review the Memphis Police Department, including its use of force and de-escalation tactics, in the wake of Tyre Nichols' death following a police beating.
Police video from multiple angles showed Memphis police officers hitting him in the face, kicking him and striking him with a baton following a traffic stop for alleged reckless driving Jan. 7. Nichols, 29, died three days later.
Multiple Memphis police employees have been charged in connection with the beating, and Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis has said her office has found no proof to substantiate the claim of reckless driving. Charges also have been filed against Memphis fire department employees, but it is not clear what the exact charges are. Details are expected to be released at a later date.
Memphis officials asked for the review, which will also include probing the department’s specialized units, the Justice Department said in a statement.
“Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis requested this review, which will cover policies, practices, training, data and processes related to MPD’s use of force, de-escalation and specialized units,” it said.
Following the probe, the Justice Department will issue a public report about its findings and recommendations.
Its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, known as COPS, will conduct the review. The Justice Department also said Wednesday, separate from the review of Memphis police, COPS will produce a guide for police chiefs and mayors across the country to “help them assess the appropriateness of the use of specialized units as well as how to ensure necessary management and oversight of such units, including review of policies, tactics, training, supervision, accountability, and transparency.”
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in the statement: “In the wake of Tyre Nichols’s tragic death, the Justice Department has heard from police chiefs across the country who are assessing the use of specialized units and, where used, appropriate management, oversight and accountability for such units. The COPS Office guide on specialized units will be a critical resource for law enforcement, mayors and community members committed to effective community policing that respects the dignity of community members and keeps people safe.”
Widespread fallout for responding agencies
News of the Justice Department's probe came on the same day Memphis was expected to release additional video and audio from the beating.
Ben Crump, the family's attorney, said neither he nor Nichols' relatives had seen the footage.
Hours after the Justice Department's announcement and Crump's statement, a Tennessee court ordered that no video, audio or records related to the city’s administrative investigation be released until all sides have reviewed the information.
Nichols' death, which led to protests around the country and renewed calls for police reform, has had widespread ramifications for the agencies involved in his traffic stop, beating and subsequent medical care.
Five police officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — were fired and charged with second-degree murder, two counts of official misconduct, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, one count of official oppression and one count of aggravated assault.
All pleaded not guilty last month to the charges.
The five former officers were members of the department's Scorpion unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The vaunted anti-violence unit launched in November 2021 when the city’s murder rate was soaring and the community was calling for action. The specialized unit was disbanded in January amid intense scrutiny following Nichols' death.
Preston Hemphill and another unnamed officer were “relieved of duty.”
The fallout from the January incident also impacted the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. Two deputies who arrived on the scene after Nichols’ beating were suspended without pay, the sheriff’s office said last month. The deputies, Jeremy Watkins and Johntavious Bowers, were suspended without pay for five days for violations of department policy, the sheriff’s office said.
“Our investigation was thorough and complete. I am satisfied that the discipline given to these deputies is appropriate and just,” Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. said in a statement.
Watkins responded but never told dispatch or a supervisor, he did not keep a body-worn camera recording, and he did not note on a daily log that he went there, disciplinary records say.
Bowers did not notify dispatch or a supervisor that he responded to the site of the traffic stop, the documents in his case say. He also did not keep his camera activated, according to the documents.
Fire department personnel charged and fired
Memphis Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Sink on Tuesday announced the conclusion of the city's investigation into Nichols' death, saying additional employees have been charged.
Four Memphis Fire Department personnel were charged, she said at a presentation before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee.
Three of the employees were fired, Sink said, and one was suspended.
The three fired employees were previously identified as EMTs Robert Long, JaMichael Sandridge and Lt. Michelle Whitaker. The fire department said in a statement that they were found to have violated multiple department policies and protocols in their response to Nichols.
The fourth employee has not been publicly identified.
The city’s investigation also resulted in charges against 13 police employees; charges against two of them were ultimately dismissed, Sink said.
Seven of them were fired, three were suspended, and one retired before a hearing could be conducted, she said.
A committee member questioned whether any officer who struck Nichols was still employed by the department. Sink said one of the suspended officers “did place hands” on Nichols’ legs.
“But that was not a strike or an assault,” she said. “He received a suspension as a result of his involvement.”
During Nichols' funeral, Vice President Kamala Harris called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which among other provisions in the bill would end “qualified immunity,” a judicial doctrine that protects police officers from civil lawsuits. Advocates of the bill believe it will increase police accountability.
“We should not delay and we will not be denied. It is nonnegotiable,” she said.