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Memphis police face federal probe after death of Tyre Nichols

Also announced Wednesday, the Justice Department will undertake a separate review of specialized police units nationwide.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it is opening a review into the Memphis Police Department after five officers were charged with murder for beating a man to death during a traffic stop.

Officials say the review will probe use of force as well as deescalation and specialized units in the department for the city in southwestern Tennessee. Separately, the federal agency will also review the use of specialized units across the country.

The reviews come after several years of strife over police killings of civilians, a disproportionate number of whom are people of color, across the country. 

The Memphis investigation was spurred by the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols. 

Officers in Memphis stopped Nichols at 8:24 p.m. Jan. 7 on suspicion of reckless driving. Video later released by the city shows officers using pepper spray and beating Nichols after dragging him from his car. He died three days later.

Attorneys for Nichols’ family have called the footage "absolutely appalling," "alarming" and "unconscionable," as quoted by the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Thirteen officers underwent investigation after Nichols' death. Commercial Appeal reports say seven were fired and three were suspended. One officer retired, but the recommendation for that person was termination. Three Memphis Fire Department employees were fired, and a fourth was suspended and ordered to attend remedial training. 

Five of the fired police officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — face charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault-acting in concert, two counts of aggravated kidnapping, two counts of official misconduct and one count of official oppression.

The Justice Department notes that Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Chief Cerelyn Davis requested it to intercede. The review will cover policies, practices, training, data and processes related to MPD’s use of force, deescalation and specialized units.

A division of the Justice Department called COPS, short for Community Oriented Policing Services, will lead the review through its Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center. 

“Providing technical assistance to law enforcement agencies so they can continue to improve their practices, while they also develop and maintain healthy relationships with the community, is at the heart of what we do,” Hugh Clements Jr., director of the COPS Office, said in a statement Wednesday. “I know that this opportunity to work with MPD, as well as our examination of specialized units in law enforcement agencies across the country, will be important resources for both law enforcement and the communities they serve.”

The review will conclude with a public report of its findings and recommendations. The Commercial Appeal reported that the city is expected to release another 20 hours of footage Wednesday ahead of the federal review.

Meanwhile, the nationwide review will create a guide for police chiefs and local leaders across the country to assess specialized units and recommend proper management and oversight. It will also include a “review of policies, tactics, training, supervision, accountability, and transparency,” the Justice Department says.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta noted that police chiefs across the country have begun to assess the use of specialized units in the wake of Nichols’ death.

"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,” Gupta said in a press release. 

Wednesday also marked the conclusion of the Justice Department's review into Kentucky’s Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Government and the Louisville Metro Police Department following the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor in 2020.

Taylor was killed when police opened fire in her apartment after serving a no-knock warrant. 

The Justice Department found reasonable cause to believe that Louisville police engaged in unconstitutional conduct. In a speech Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland called out tactics that include "excessive force, unlawfully discriminating against Black people, conducting searches based on invalid warrants, and violating the rights of those engaged in protected speech critical of policing.

“This unacceptable and unconstitutional conduct erodes the community trust necessary for effective policing," Garland said. "It is also an affront to the vast majority of officers who put their lives on the line to serve Louisville with honor. And it is an affront to the people of Louisville who deserve better."

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Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Law, National

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