3 fire personnel are terminated and 2 other Memphis officers were placed on leave over Tyre Nichols’ deadly beating, officials say
By Steve Almasy, Mark Morales, Holly Yan and Nick Valencia, CNN
Fallout from the deadly police beating of Black motorist Tyre Nichols now includes the firing of three Memphis Fire Department personnel, and an announcement that a total of seven police officers were placed on leave, as critics nationwide call for police reform.
Two emergency medical technicians and a fire department lieutenant have been terminated over their response to Nichols’ January 7 encounter with members of a now-disbanded unit of the police department, Memphis Fire Chief Gina Sweat said Monday.
Police pulled Nichols over in what they initially said was on suspicion of reckless driving. Officers yanked him out of his car, and he ran away after officers deployed pepper spray and a Taser to try to make him lie prone; minutes later, officers would catch up with him at a second location and hit or kick him numerous times, police body-camera and surveillance video shows.
He died three days later of his injuries, the Tennessee Bureau Investigation has said. The beating has fueled broader public scrutiny of how US police use force, especially against people of color.
Emergency medical technicians Robert Long and JaMichael Sandridge and fire Lt. Michelle Whitaker have been fired, the fire department said Monday.
An investigation concluded that the two EMTs “failed to conduct an adequate patient assessment of Mr. Nichols” after responding based on both the initial call — in which they heard a person was pepper-sprayed — and information they were told at the scene, Sweat said in a news release.
Whitaker had remained in the fire truck, according to the chief’s statement.
The fire department said earlier this month that the two EMTs had been suspended pending an internal investigation.
The truck carrying the EMTs arrived at the second scene at about 8:41 p.m. to find Nichols on the ground leadning against a polcie vehicle, and called for an ambulance at 8:46 p.m. the fire department said. The ambulance arrived at 8:55 p.m. and left with Nichols 13 minutes later, according to the fire department.
Pole-camera video released Friday shows that between the time the EMTs arrived and the ambulance arrived, first-responders repeatedly walked away from Nichols, with Nichols intermittently falling onto his side.
Also Monday, the police department announced that seven officers were placed on leave the day after the beating — two more than previously announced.
Five of the officers — all of whom are Black — were fired January 20 and then indicted last week on second-degree murder and other charges.
One officer said, ‘I hope they stomp his ass’
Memphis police said Monday that a sixth and a seventh officer were placed on leave with the other five on January 8 — and those two officers still are subjects of an internal investigation.
Police on Monday named one of the two officers, Preston Hemphill, who is White, and said he has been on administrative leave since the beginning of the investigation. Memphis police spokesperson Kimberly Elder declined to say whether Hemphill is being paid.
The city on Friday released body-camera and pole-camera surveillance footage of the initial traffic stop and the beating at the second site. One of the body-cam videos reveals Hemphill — at the site of the initial traffic stop — fired a Taser at Nichols and eventually said, “One of them prongs hit the bastard.”
Later, Hemphill says to another officer: “I hope they stomp his ass.” That body-cam video does not show Hemphill at the second site, where the county’s district attorney has said Nichols was beaten and suffered his serious injuries.
Hemphill has not been charged. “He was never present at the second scene” that escalated to the beating, and Hemphill has been cooperating with the investigation, his attorney Lee Gerald said.
The seventh officer has not been publicly identified.
Attorneys for Nichols’ family wonder why authorities were quick to fire five Black police officers and charge them with murder — while staying relatively quiet about Hemphill’s role in the encounter.
“The news today from Memphis officials that Officer Preston Hemphill was reportedly relieved of duty weeks ago, but not yet terminated or charged, is extremely disappointing. Why is his identity and the role he played in Tyre’s death just now coming to light?” attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci said in a statement Monday.
“It certainly begs the question why the White officer involved in this brutal attack was shielded and protected from the public eye.”
Later, Romanucci said on CNN, “This is such a gross collapse of the system that we’re supposed to trust, that it really is unspeakable. (Nichols’ family is) trying to absorb all of this.”
Weeks after Nichols’ death, many questions remain. Among them:
• Whether more officers will face charges or other discipline: Memphis City Council member Frank Colvett wants to know why more officers at the scene of Nichols’ beating had not been disciplined or suspended, he said Sunday.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy’s office is looking at everyone involved, including Hemphill, Mulroy told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Monday. That includes fire department personnel and people who did paperwork for the encounter, he added.
“Nothing is being ruled out. But we need to ask for patience,” he said.
• How Memphis’ police chief will fare: While some have praised Chief Davis‘ swift action in the case, she also created the controversial SCORPION unit that the charged officers were linked to. “There is a reckoning coming for the police department and for the leadership,” Colvett said. “She’s going to have to answer not just to the council but to the citizens — and really the world.”
• What happens to sheriff’s personnel: Two deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office were put on leave last week pending an investigation, after the sheriff viewed.
• If Nichols’ death spurs national-level police reform: The Congressional Black Caucus has asked for a meeting with President Joe Biden this week to push for negotiations on police reform.
What the footage shows
Video of the fatal encounter is difficult to watch. It starts with a traffic stop and later shows officers repeatedly beating Nichols with batons, punching him and kicking him — even as his hands are restrained behind his back at one point.
Nichols is heard calling for his mother as he was kicked and pepper-sprayed.
“All of these officers failed their oath,” said Crump, one of the attorneys representing the Nichols family. “They failed their oath to protect and serve.”
At the residential street corner where Nichols was beaten, mourners created a makeshift memorial. Across the country, protesters marched after the videos’ release, in cities including New York, Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles.
Nichols’ family remembered him as a good son and father who enjoyed skateboarding, photography and sunsets. They recalled his smile and hugs and mourned the moments they’ll never have again.
Expert questions second-degree murder charges
The five fired officers charged in connection with Nichols’ beating — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin and Desmond Mills Jr. — are expected to be arraigned February 17.
Mills Jr. didn’t cross lines “that others crossed” during the confrontation with Nichols and instead was a “victim” of the system he worked within, his attorney, Blake Ballin, told CNN.
Martin’s attorney, William Massey, said “no one out there that night intended for Tyre Nichols to die.”
Attorneys for the other former officers did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Memphis Police Association declined to comment on the terminations beyond saying the city of Memphis and Nichols’ family “deserve to know the complete account of the events leading up to his death and what may have contributed to it,” the union said in a statement.
The Shelby County district attorney’s office said each of the five fired officers face seven counts, including: second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping with bodily injury, aggravated kidnapping in possession of a deadly weapon, official misconduct and official oppression.
But a second-degree murder charge — which requires intent to kill — might be harder to prove than a first-degree felony murder charge, said Alexis Hoag-Fordjour, assistant professor of law and co-director of the Center for Criminal Justice at Brooklyn Law School.
“For first-degree felony murder, it means that a murder happened in conjunction with an underlying felony,” said Hoag-Fordjour, noting she practiced law in Tennessee.
“Here, every single charge that the Memphis district attorney charged these five individuals with were felonies. And the underlying felony that would support a first-degree murder charge — felony murder — is kidnapping.”
The kidnapping counts against officers may seem unusual because “we obviously deputize law enforcement officials to make seizures, to make arrests,” Hoag-Fordjour told “CNN This Morning” on Monday.
“But at this point … what would have been legitimate behavior crossed the line into illegitimacy.”
While first-degree felony murder might be easier to prove, Hoag-Fordjour said, second-degree murder convictions are still possible.
Under Tennessee law, a person can be convicted of second-degree murder if they could be reasonably certain their actions would result in somebody’s death, Hoag-Fordjour said.
SCORPION unit tied to deadly beating gets axed
The five fired officers charged in Nichols’ beating were members of the now-scrapped SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) unit, Memphis police spokesperson Maj. Karen Rudolph said Saturday.
Hemphill, one of thes officer still on administrative leave, was also a member of the SCORPION unit, a source familiar with his assignment confirmed to CNN. Authorities have not said whether the seventh officer removed from duty was with the unit.
The unit, launched in 2021, put officers into areas where police were tracking upticks in violent crime.
“That reprehensible conduct we saw in that video, we think this was part of the culture of the SCORPION unit,” Crump said.
“We demanded that they disbanded immediately before we see anything like this happen again,” he said. “It was the culture that was just as guilty for killing Tyre Nichols as those officers.”
Memphis police will permanently deactivate the unit. “While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the title SCORPION, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted,” the department said.
Colvett supported the dismantling of the SCORPION unit.
“I think the smart move and the mayor is correct in shutting it down,” the council member said. “These kinds of actions are not representative of the Memphis Police Department.”
Calls for police reform grow
“The brutal beating of Tyre Nichols was murder and is a grim reminder that we still have a long way to go in solving systemic police violence in America,” Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. Steven Horsford said Sunday in a statement.
The Tennessee State Conference NAACP president applauded Davis for “doing the right thing” by not waiting six months to a year to fire the officers who beat Tyre Nichols.
But she had had harsher words for Congress: “By failing to craft and pass bills to stop police brutality, you’re writing another Black man’s obituary,” said Gloria Sweet-Love. “The blood of Black America is on your hands. So, stand up and do something.”
On the state level, two Democratic lawmakers said they intend to file police reform legislation ahead of the general assembly’s Tuesday filing deadline.
The bills would seek to address mental health care for law enforcement officers, hiring, training, discipline practices and other topics, said Tennessee state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, who represents a part of Memphis and Shelby County.
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong first name for Tyre Nichols.
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CNN’s Nouran Salahieh, Chuck Johnston, Jaide Timm-Garcia, Isabel Rosales, Jasmine Wright, Phin Percy, Shimon Prokupecz, Sara Smart, Jamiel Lynch, Sharif Paget, Christina Zdanowicz, Amanda Watts and Aileen Graef contributed to this report.