by Adrian Sainz and Jonathan Mattise —
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 in even in the majority Black city of Memphis, the police department may be disproportionately focusing its traffic enforcement on Black drivers.
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.
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.