Brett Wilkins criminal justice Police Violence

Fired Memphis Cops Charged With Second-Degree Murder for Killing Tyre Nichols

"The video must be that bad," said law professor Sherrilyn Ifill. "But fired does not prevent rehiring elsewhere, and charged does not mean convicted. But more important than all, none of this brings back Tyre Nichols."
Memphis skateboarders hold a demonstration in honor of police brutality victim Tyre Nichols, who was an avid skateboarder (Screenshot via: WREG News Channel 3)

By Brett Wilkins / Common Dreams

Five Memphis, Tennessee police officers who were fired for what their chief called a “heinous, reckless, and inhumane” attack on a Black motorist who died three days after a traffic stop were booked and charged Thursday with crimes including second-degree murder. 

Former Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin III, and Desmond Mills Jr—who are all Black—were charged with crimes including second-degree murder, aggravated assault-acting in concert, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression, according to court records. 

Speaking at a Thursday news conference announcing the charges, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David B. Rausch described the five officers’ actions as “absolutely appalling.” 

“We are here to pursue truth and justice, realizing that we should not be here,” said Rausch. “Simply put, this should not have happened. I’m sickened by what I saw.” 

On Wednesday night, Memphis Police Chief C.J. Davis lamented the “horrific circumstances” of Nichols’ death. Calling the victim’s arrest a “failing of basic humanity,” Davis vowed her department would “find truth in the tragic loss.”

Nichols died on January 10 from cardiac arrest and kidney failure three days after Memphis officers pulled his vehicle over at around 8:30 pm on January 7. MPD claimed there were two “confrontations” between officers and Nichols, who allegedly ran away before being violently arrested. Complaining of shortness of breath, Nichols was rushed to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition. 

All five officers were fired on January 20 after they “were found to be directly responsible for the physical abuse of Mr. Nichols,” Davis explained. Two firefighters were also terminated in connection with the attack.

Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz—working with the FBI’s Memphis Field Office and the U.S. Justice Department—launched a civil rights investigation into the case.

According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, some of the officers involved belonged to an MPD unit called SCORPION, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. 

In 2016, a federal civil rights complaint was filed against Haley, alleging that he and other officers strip-searched an inmate at a penal farm and beat him until he blacked out, WHBQ reported.

Antonio Romanucci, an attorney representing Nichols’ family, said Monday after viewing police bodycam footage of the attack on the 29-year-old father: “He was a human piñata for those police officers. It was unadulterated, unabashed, nonstop beating of this young boy for three minutes.”

Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is also representing Nichols’ relatives, compared the footage to the 1991 beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles Police Department officers. 

“What we saw, regrettably, reminded us of the Rodney King video,” Crump said Monday. “But, unlike Rodney King, Tyre didn’t survive.”‘

The Shelby County District Attorney’s Office said earlier this week that it will likely release footage of the incident at 6:00 pm local time Friday.

“Yet again, we’re seeing evidence of what happens to Black and Brown people from simple traffic stops,” Crump contended. “You should not be killed because of a simple traffic stop.”

“And we have to say to America: How you would treat our white brothers and sisters when you have a traffic stop with them, well, treat us Black and Brown citizens the same way,” he added. 

On Monday, Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, called her son a “gentle soul.”

“Tyre was a beautiful person. He loved to skateboard. He loved to take pictures. He liked to go see the sunset. And most of all, he loved his mother and he loved his son,” she said. 

Speaking of the fired officers, Wells added: “Those five men—their families are heartbroken as well. They hurt a lot of people when they did this. I don’t understand why they had to do this to my son.”

Some civil rights leaders called on Congress to take action to prevent such incidents. 

“It is only right that the Memphis Police Department takes the necessary additional steps to hold these officers accountable for their role in ripping apart a family and traumatizing a community. However, this is far from what justice looks like. Justice looks like the 535 members of Congress taking the time to turn their ‘thoughts and prayers’ into action and change,” said NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson in response to Thursday’s charges. 

Johnson added: 

Congress: Do something. By failing to write a piece of legislation, you’re writing another obituary. By failing to pass the legislation, you’re passing on your sworn duty to protect the people. We know just how much all of you will be thinking and praying upon the release of the video, you don’t need to mention it. Instead, tell us what you’re going to do about it. Tell us what you’re going to do to honor Tyre Nichols. Tell us what you’re going to do to show his family, his loving son, and this entire nation, that his life was not lost in vain. We can name all the victims of police violence, but we can’t name a single law you have passed to address it.

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act—named after the unarmed Black man murderedby Minneapolis police in May 2020—was introduced by then-Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) in February 2021. The proposed legislation, which, among other reforms, would have banned police chokeholds and ended so-called qualified immunity for officers, passed the following month by a mostly party-line vote of 220-212. However, the bill failed to pass the Senate.

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Brett Wilkins

Brett Wilkins is a staff writer for Common Dreams.

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