Sam Stockard, Tennessee Lookout
The U.S. Department of Justice initiated a civil rights investigation Thursday of the city of Memphis and Memphis Police Department stemming in part from Tyre Nichols’s death in January after being beaten by police officers during a traffic stop.
“Public safety requires public trust in police officers,” said U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz at a Memphis press conference.
The probe is designed to determine whether the police department is guilty of systemic constitutional violations and will concentrate on the use of police force, traffic stops, searches, arrests and the possibility of discrimination, the Justice Department said. It marks a separate investigation from a criminal civil rights investigation into the officers who were part of the city’s SCORPION Unit who allegedly beat Nichols, according to the DOJ.
The patrol group was set up two years ago to battle violent crime in the city, but video showed the officers beat Nichols after a short foot chase Jan. 7. Nichols died at a Memphis hospital three days later from wounds suffered during the incident.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland on Thursday pledged to be a “good partner” with the investigation, but expressed disappointment the Department of Justice failed to discuss the investigation with him before announcing it. Strickland, along with Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis, learned of the probe just ahead of a press conference Thursday morning.
“The City will be a good partner in this new inquiry,” Strickland said. “However, I am disappointed that my request was not granted by the Department of Justice to discuss this step before a decision was made to move down this path. I know they discussed the need for such an action with many other individuals. I hope the remainder of the process is more forthright and inclusive than it has been so far.”
The Memphis Police Department will continue to fully cooperate with the Department of Justice, Davis said.
“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,” he said. While the officers involved in the Tyre Nichols case demonstrated no regard for these tenets, I am appreciative of the MPD officers that continue to serve our city with integrity. As Chief of Police, I am committed to building and maintaining public trust with the citizens of Memphis that we took an oath to serve each and every day.
State Sen. Raumesh Akbari of Memphis said Thursday she hopes city and police officials will “embrace” the civil rights investigation and try to make “systemic change.”
“Our families are sick and tired of crime and they need our police department to succeed. But well-meaning officers cannot build trust if the department does not holistically address the failures it has made in the past,” said Akbari, the Senate Democratic Caucus leader.
The Department of Justice could file a lawsuit to force court-ordered changes in police practices if the investigation finds the department committed civil rights violations, according to reports.
“The tragic death of Tyre Nichols created enormous pain in the Memphis community and across the country,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement released by the DOJ.
The five officers involved, all of whom are Black, pleaded not guilty after being indicted on second-degree murder charges, in addition to aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping and official misconduct. Another officer who was white was fired by the department and charged with violating department policy.
Nichols’ family filed a $550 million lawsuit in federal court against the city in April, claiming officers assigned to the unit weren’t qualified for the job.
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