Thursday, July 18, 2024

DOJ announces investigation of Memphis police after Tyre Nichols death

The U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday it is investigating the patterns or practices of the police department in Memphis, Tennessee, nearly seven months after the violent beating of Tyre Nichols by five officers after a traffic stop.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division made the announcement in Memphis. Federal authorities will use the investigative tool to look collectively at the Memphis Police Department’s use of force and stops, searches and arrests, and whether it engages in discriminatory policing.

She said that even in the majority Black city of Memphis, the police department may be disproportionately focusing its traffic enforcement on Black drivers.

Kristen Clarke, the Assistant U.S. Attorney General for the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, speaks during a news conference on Thursday, July 27, 2023 in Memphis, Tenn. The U.S. Department of Justice said Thursday it is investigating the patterns or practices of the Memphis Police Department, seven months after the violent beating of Tyre Nichols by five officers after a traffic stop.(AP Photo/Adrian Sainz).

Clarke said the probe will look into the city and its police department. She mentioned Nichols’ death, but said the investigation is not based on a single event, or a single unit with the police agency.

“The tragic death of Tyre Nichols created enormous pain in the Memphis community and across the country,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news release. “The Justice Department is launching this investigation to examine serious allegations that the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department engage in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct and discriminatory policing based on race, including a dangerously aggressive approach to traffic enforcement.

Clarke said the Department of Justice has received reports of Memphis officers escalating encounters with people in the community and using excessive force; using force punitively when they perceive someone’s behavior as insolent; and using force against people who are already restrained or in custody.

The police department and city of Memphis did not immediately return requests for comment. Clarke said the Justice Department told the police chief and mayor about the investigation, adding that they pledged to cooperate.

The five officers have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges including second-degree murder in the Jan. 7 beating of Nichols after a traffic stop — and his death three days later. Caught on police video, the beating of the 29-year-old Nichols was one in a string of violent encounters between police and Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and police reform in the U.S.

The five officers charged in the case are Black. So was Nichols.

The officers were part of a crime-suppression team known as Scorpion. They punched Nichols, kicked him and slugged him with a baton as he yelled for his mother. The police chief disbanded the Scorpion unit after Nichols’ death.

Flanked by Rodney Wells (C) and RowVaughn Wells, the stepfather and mother of Tyre Nichols, civil rights attorney Ben Crump speaks next to a photo of Nichols during a press conference on January 27, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died three days after being severely beaten by five Memphis Police Department officers during a traffic stop on January 7, 2023. Memphis and cities across the country are bracing for potential unrest when the city releases video footage from the beating to the public later this evening. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

In addition to the officers fired and charged with murder, one white officer who was involved in the initial traffic stop has been fired. That officer will not face charges. Another officer, who has not been identified, also has been fired. An additional officer retired before he could be fired.

Three Memphis Fire Department emergency medical technicians were fired for failing to render aid to Nichols. Two Shelby County Sheriff’s Office deputies who went to the location after the beating were suspended for five days for policy violations.

Activists have been calling for a pattern or practice investigation into Memphis police for years.

“This is a necessary step in ensuring the citizens of Memphis have our civil rights protected and that we moving beyond tacit political talking points regarding Criminal Justice Reform,” said Memphis activist Earle Fisher.

“The Tyre Nichols case moved this idea that there is a pattern or practice of civil rights violations at the Memphis Police Department into the next kind of phase, of what has now become a full-blown Department of Justice investigation,” added Josh Spickler of Just City.

In June, a similar Department of Justice probe alleged that Minneapolis police systematically discriminated against racial minorities, violated constitutional rights and disregarded the safety of people in custody for years before George Floyd was killed.

And in March, the department found Louisville police engaged in a pattern of violating constitutional rights and discrimination against the Black community following an investigation prompted by the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

The investigations can take years — both the Louisville and Minneapolis probes were launched in April 2021.

Depending on their findings, the investigations can result in agreements that require reforms that are overseen by an independent monitor and are approved by a federal judge. The federal oversight can continue for years.


Mattise reported from Nashville.


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