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Pursuit of ‘Justice for Tyre’ yields a massive lawsuit

Citing negligence on several fronts, civil rights attorney Ben Crump on Wednesday announced the filing of a $550 million lawsuit against the city of Memphis and others in the Tyre Nichols beating case by members of a special police crime suppression unit. 

The lawsuit accuses the city of negligence in hiring Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, who also is named as a defendant. It contends Davis was culpable for lax hiring processes, along with the development of the SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Return Peace In Our Neighborhoods) Unit’s “oppression style of policing” and poor training.

The lawsuit states the city should have been aware of the Atlanta Police Department’s RED DOG Unit that Davis was closely tied with when she was hired as Memphis’ police chief in 2021.

Also, the lawsuit said the creation of the SCORPION Unit should have raised red flags.

The lawsuit also alleged the SCORPION Unit rather than “restore peace” in Memphis neighborhoods, “consistent with the directives received from Chief Davis, herself,” brought terror…and conducted “untold Fourth Amendment violations with a focus on Black men living in Memphis.”

Flanked by other attorneys who helped devise the extensive complaint, Crump called the filing a “landmark lawsuit,” not only for the amount of money being sought, but also as a way of sending a message to other cities.

Attorney Ben Crump emphasized said the lawsuit is about “accountability.” (Photo: William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

“We want other cities to know that if they allow these jump-out units, these red dog units, these pro-active police units to operate, we may be coming to your city next,” said Crump.

Crump continued, “We want police departments all over America to change their policies because it would be financially unsustainable to unjustly kill Black men and women…”

Nichols was brutally beaten during a Jan. 7 traffic stop by police officers working in a special detail called the SCORPION Unit, which was disbanded after Nichols’ death.

Officers were shown on video bludgeoning and spraying a chemical agent at Nichols. The video footage was released to the public, sparking protests across the nation.

Nichols died Jan. 10 at St. Francis Hospital.

Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are former police officers and three Memphis Fire Department paramedics accused of failing to help Nichols at the scene are also named.

The other defendants are former SCORPION Unit police officers Emmitt Martin III, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Desmond Mills Jr., and Tadarrius Bean. 

All five officers were fired and later charged with second-degree murder and other serious felonies for their alleged actions in Nichols’ beating.

The lawsuit also targets Preston Hemphill, a former police officer fired for his role in the encounter, and former police lieutenant DeWayne Smith, who resigned from the Police Department before facing an administrative hearing for his role in the incident.

Former Fire Department paramedics Robert Long, JaMichael Sandridge, and Michelle Whitaker, who were also fired, are also named as defendants in the lawsuit. 

Crump used the April 19 announcement to invoke “the lynching of Emmet Till 70 years ago.” 

“Tyre was attacked by a lynch mob, except they were wearing department-issued t-shirts and badges,” said Crump.

Partnering with Crump was attorney Antonio Romanucci, who worked with Crump on the George Floyd case. His remarks placed Nichols’ death squarely on the doorstep of Davis.

“Cerelyn Davis brought the concept of the Red Dog Unit which operates in Atlanta,” said Romanucci. “She changed the name, but the purpose was still the same: make traffic stops of Black men and get as much evidence from the car as they possibly can…”

Crump said officers are going to testify that they were instructed to make these “unlawful, unconstitutional stops.”

“They will testify that Chief Davis told them, ‘Don’t worry about cases being thrown out,” Crump said.

Crump said the lawsuit hits directly “at the indifference of those involved.” 

Romanucci’s office released a press release on Wednesday, stating the “savage beating of Tyre Nichols” was set in motion when the Memphis City Council appointed Davis as the new police chief.

The document calls the brutality against Nichols unleashed on Jan. 7 “the direct and foreseeable product of the unconstitutional policies, practices…and decisions of the City of Memphis and Chief Davis.”

As they have been from the outset, local activists were present demanding justice for Tyre Nichols. (Photo: William Weeks/The New Tri-State Defender)

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, both individually and as “administratrix ad litem,” which is legalese for the person appointed by a Probate Court to represent the interest of Tyre Nichols’ estate.

Wells spoke briefly, saying that losing a son puts her in “a fraternity she never wanted to be a part of,” those who have lost children to violent encounters with law enforcement. 

When asked how the attorneys came up with the $550 million figure, Crump said, “It is the 55th year since Dr. Martin Luther King was killed.”

Crump said the suit is not about the money, but about “accountability.”

Wells is being represented by Crump, Romanucci, Bhavani K. Raveendran, Bryce T. Hensley and Sarah M. Raisch of Romanucci & Blandin.

Local counsel includes David Mendelson and Benjamin Wachtel of Mendelson Law Firm, Lashonda Council-Rogers of Council & Associates, and retired Memphis City Court judge Earnestine Hunt Dorse. 

Crump said each attorney had a hand in meticulously composing the 897-paragraph complaint.

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