(MEMPHIS, Tenn.) — The Department of Justice is investigating whether law enforcement in Memphis, Tennessee, engaged in “discriminatory policing,” including in how it conducted traffic stops, in the wake of the death of Tyre Nichols earlier this year, officials said Thursday.
The Memphis Police Department intends to cooperate with the probe, also known as a pattern or practice investigation, the DOJ said in a news release.
“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.
“The Justice Department is launching this investigation to examine serious allegations that the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department engage in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional conduct and discriminatory policing based on race, including a dangerously aggressive approach to traffic enforcement,” Garland continued. “We are committed to working cooperatively with local officials, police, and community members to conduct the thorough and comprehensive review that the residents of Memphis deserve.”
The DOJ previously launched a review of the Memphis Police Department’s use-of-force and de-escalation policies at the request of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn J. Davis. The review is being conducted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, and a report will be released once it is completed.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Civil Rights Division made clear the new probe being launched has a “different purpose” that the COPS review.
“This federal civil rights investigation will examine whether police violated the Constitution or federal civil rights laws in a systemic way,” Clarke said at a news conference in Memphis alongside Kevin Ritz, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee.
Strickland vowed the city will be a “good partner in this new inquiry” but noted his disappointment 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 hope the remainder of the process is more forthright and inclusive than it has been so far,” Strickland added in his statement.
Davis added that the MPD will “continue to fully cooperate and work closely with the Department of Justice (DOJ) as its members conduct this next phase of their investigation” and that she is “committed to building and maintaining public trust with the citizens of Memphis.”
“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. 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,” she said in her statement.
Attorneys for Nichols’ family said Thursday the DOJ “heard their cries for accountability.”
“Actions such as this will continue to show that the federal government will not let corruption within police departments take the lives of innocent Americans,” attorneys Ben Crump and Atonio Romanucci said in a statement. “It is our hope that the investigation by the DOJ, under the leadership of Attorney General Garland and Assistant Attorney General Clarke, will provide a transparent account of the abuses of power we have seen and continue to see in Memphis.”
Nichols, 29, died three days after he was beaten by officers during a Jan. 7 traffic stop in Memphis. Footage of the altercation shows officers striking Nichols repeatedly. The official autopsy showed he “died of brain injuries from blunt force trauma,” the district attorney’s office told Nichols’ family in May.
Seven Memphis Police Department officers have been fired for their roles in the arrest. Five of them have been charged with second-degree murder in connection with Nichols’ death.
The Memphis Police Department also deactivated its Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods Unit, or SCORPION Unit, the controversial MPD unit at the center of Nichols’ death.
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