By Adrian Sainz
The Justice Department announced Wednesday that it will review the Memphis Police Department policies on the use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialized units in response to the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols during an arrest.
Meanwhile, a judge ordered that video footage and other information pertaining to the Nichols case that was expected to be released Wednesday must be delayed to give lawyers time to review it.
The Justice Department review was requested by the city's mayor and police chief, the department said. In a separate effort, it will examine the use of specialized units around the country and produce a guide for police chiefs and mayors on their use, according to the announcement.
“In the wake of Tyre Nichols’s tragic death, the Justice Department has heard from police chiefs across the country who are assessing the use of specialized units and, where used, appropriate management, oversight and accountability for such units," said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta.
The U.S. Justice Department has previously opened a civil rights investigation into Nichols’ death.
The city on Wednesday had planned to release about 20 hours of video and audio related to the arrest of the 29-year-old motorist who died Jan. 10, three days after his violent arrest. Chief Legal Officer Jennifer Sink mentioned the video release during a City Council committee meeting Tuesday.
But the release was put on hold Wednesday after a judge granted a motion to delay from defense attorneys for five officers charged with second-degree murder in Nichols' death. The judge ordered that any release of video, audio, reports and city of Memphis employees personnel files related to the Nichols investigation, including the results of administrative hearings, must wait “until such time as the state and the defendants have reviewed this information.”
Once released, the additional video will add to the already-public footage from police body cameras and a surveillance camera that has given the world a detailed look at the police pummeling Nichols.
Blake Ballin, the lawyer for one of the five officers who have been charged, said the motion was intended to preserve their right to a fair trial and guard against the public release of evidence that could be “irrelevant, prejudicial, misleading or inadmissible.”
“It is vital that potential jurors do not form opinions or draw conclusions prior to hearing the actual evidence in this case,” said Ballin, who represents former Officer Desmond Mills Jr.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, the longtime civil rights activist who eulogized Nichols at his funeral, criticized the delay and demanded immediate release of the video.
“To tell the public you will release more evidence and then pull it back at the 11th hour only causes more frustration for a city still reeling from this senseless killing,” Sharpton said in a statement.
Officials have named six officers who have already been fired in the case, including Mills and the four others who have been charged. Those five officers’ own body cameras recorded them beating Nichols, propping the badly injured Nichols in handcuffs against an unmarked police car and then ignoring him as he struggled to stay upright. They have pleaded not guilty.
The six officers previously fired for their roles in Nichols’ arrest and beating were members of the Memphis police's Scorpion unit, an anti-crime task force that residents have accused of violent tactics. Davis initially defended the unit after Nichols’ death but later disbanded it. Officers who were part of the Scorpion unit but were not fired have been moved to other units, Davis has said.
Police said Nichols was suspected of reckless driving when he was arrested on Jan. 7, but no verified evidence of a traffic violation has emerged in public documents or in video footage. Davis has said she has seen no evidence justifying the stop or the officers’ response.
Discipline for those involved in the arrest has extended to the Memphis Fire Department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, where two deputies have been suspended. The fire department said two of them “failed to conduct an adequate patient assessment of Mr. Nichols,” while the third, a lieutenant, remained in the fire engine with the driver.
The review of Memphis police's use of force, de-escalation policies and specialized units will be handled by the Justice Department's Collaborative Reform Initiative Technical Assistance Center, or COPS office. The office has been given more than $20 billion to advance community policing in the U.S., officials said.
The office will issue a public report outlining its findings and recommendations after the review is completed, officials said.
Also on Wednesday, the Justice Department found that Louisville, Kentucky, police have engaged in a pattern of violating constitutional rights and discrimination against the Black community following an investigation prompted by the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor. The 26-year old woman was fatally shot in her apartment during a police raid in March 2020.