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Justice Dept. launches review of Memphis police after Tyre Nichols’s death

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/8/2023 Mark Berman
FILE - In this image from video released and partially redacted by the city of Memphis, Tenn., Tyre Nichols lies on the ground during a brutal attack by Memphis Police officers on Jan. 7, 2023, in Memphis. (City of Memphis via AP, File) FILE - In this image from video released and partially redacted by the city of Memphis, Tenn., Tyre Nichols lies on the ground during a brutal attack by Memphis Police officers on Jan. 7, 2023, in Memphis. (City of Memphis via AP, File)

The Justice Department said Wednesday that it was launching an examination of the Memphis Police Department’s use-of-force policies and practices, adding a new layer of federal scrutiny to a local agency that has faced widespread criticism since some of its officers were videotaped beating Tyre Nichols in January.

The review will encompass Memphis police training, policies and activities that relate to using force, de-escalation efforts and operating specialized units, the Justice Department said. It was announced just over two months after officers in Memphis were recorded brutally beating Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, after a traffic stop. Nichols died three days later.

The beating led the Memphis police to fire seven officers, five of whom have been charged with second-degree murder and other offenses, and prompted a spate of local, state and federal probes into what happened, with local police, sheriff’s deputies and fire personnel drawing scrutiny. Additional criminal charges also are possible in the case, the local prosecutor’s office has said, while a federal civil rights probe is underway.

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After the video footage of Nichols’s beating was released in late January, the Memphis police also shut down the specialized group — known as the Scorpion unit — to which the five officers charged in the death had been assigned.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that it plans to “produce a guide” for local police chiefs and mayors “to help them assess the appropriateness of the use of specialized units” and ensure proper oversight.

“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,” Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a statement.

In Memphis, Cerelyn Davis, the police chief, has said her department has long lacked an appropriate number of supervisors. After Nichols’s death, she told the city council that the Scorpion unit did have a supervisor but that the person was “not present during the time that the incident occurred.” Davis initially defended the Scorpion unit after Nichols’s death, saying critics of the group wanted “to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

She later reversed course and shut down the unit.

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The Justice Department said the new federal review came at the request of Davis, the police chief, and Jim Strickland, the Memphis mayor. The city had said it would be releasing another 20 hours of camera footage in the Nichols case on Wednesday. At midday, however, the city said no additional information would be made public right away, citing a court order issued Wednesday in response to a motion from defense lawyers. The order said any video, audio, reports or personnel files related to the Nichols investigation must be reviewed by prosecutors and defense counsel before being released.

The review falls short of what is known as a pattern-or-practice probe — a much more intensive type of investigation of police departments that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division may launch when it suspects potentially unlawful policing.

Pattern-or-practice investigations often result in court orders dictating reforms. Under Attorney General Merrick Garland, the department has launched such probes of the police in Minneapolis and Louisville after deadly uses of force that fueled protests and unrest, and of police in six other cities. The Justice Department also has charged dozens of individual law enforcement officials with civil rights offenses.

In Memphis, by comparison, the Justice Department says the review will be conducted by its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Rather than ending with any court-mandated agreement dictating specific changes, the review will conclude with a publicly available report including its findings and recommended changes.

Robert Klemko, Joyce Lee and David Nakamura contributed to this report.


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