Thursday, 1 Jun 2023

Tennessee Moves to Decertify Officers Who Beat Tyre Nichols

NASHVILLE — At least four of the five Memphis police officers charged with second-degree murder in connection with the killing of Tyre Nichols should be barred from ever working in local law enforcement in Tennessee, an oversight agency said on Thursday.

The agency’s recommendations are the latest fallout from the brutal police encounter with Mr. Nichols, a Black FedEx worker and aspiring photographer who was kicked, taunted and fatally beaten by officers. The violence of the officers’ actions, which was captured on publicly released body camera and surveillance footage, shocked the nation and highlighted a pattern of excessive violence and intimidation by officers in the Memphis Police Department.

Along with criminal charges against officers involved in the early January traffic stop that led to Mr. Nichols’s death, the authorities have pursued a separate track of administrative punishment. That has included the firing of seven police officers, two emergency medical technicians and a Fire Department lieutenant, and the suspension of three police officers and one fire official without pay.

The Police Department asked the oversight agency, the Tennessee Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission, to formally decertify six of the fired officers. The six include the five Black officers who have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — as well as Preston Hemphill, who is white and has not been charged with a crime. The department also sought the decertification of Dewayne M. Smith, a police lieutenant who responded to the scene where Mr. Nichols was beaten but retired before he could be disciplined.

At a hearing on Thursday the commission, which oversees standards and training for local law enforcement in the state, unanimously recommended that three of the fired officers — Mr. Haley, Mr. Martin and Mr. Smith — lose their certification by default, because they were not present or represented at the hearing.

A lawyer for a fourth officer, Mr. Mills, told the commission before the hearing that his client would not challenge the department’s request and would surrender his certification. The remaining two officers — Mr. Bean and Mr. Hemphill — have not had hearings scheduled yet.

The recommendations from the hearing are expected to be formally adopted by the commission at a meeting as early as Friday, though the officers would still have the opportunity to appeal.

Police agencies across the country face pressure to prevent fired, disciplined or criminally charged officers from joining other departments and continuing to work in law enforcement despite a record of misconduct or abuse of their power.

Several hours of video of Mr. Nichols’s fatal encounter with the Memphis police have yet to be released publicly. But an hour of body camera and surveillance footage that was released in late January shows in clear and graphic detail how the stop became violent, as some of the officers forced Mr. Nichols from his car and threatened him, even though he did not appear to resist. At one point, Mr. Nichols, 29, broke away from the officers and ran toward his family’s home, but the officers caught up with him and began to beat him.

The Death of Tyre Nichols

Five Memphis police officers have been charged in the death of Tyre Nichols, a Black man, after a traffic stop escalated into a brutal beating.

Commission officials said that lawyers for Mr. Haley, Mr. Martin and Mr. Smith had asked that any decision about their clients be delayed while the criminal case against them proceeds, but they were told that such a request would have to be made in person at the hearing in Nashville. None of the three men or their lawyers were present on Thursday.

Lawyers for Mr. Haley, Mr. Smith and Mr. Martin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Blake Ballin, a defense lawyer for Mr. Mills, said of his client in an interview that, “after getting over that initial devastation of losing his livelihood, his focus is now shifted to the fact that his freedom is at stake.” Mr. Ballin said he believed that both the commission and the Police Department “had essentially already made up their minds” about Mr. Mills. “There was no winning this battle,” he said, “and so he’s choosing to focus his energy on battles he can win, like the trial.”

Mr. Martin and Mr. Smith were captured on video separately punching and kicking Mr. Nichols as he struggled to comply with the officers’ impossible demands. Mr. Mills was seen repeatedly pepper-spraying Mr. Nichols and striking him with a baton while he was handcuffed and restrained by other officers.

Internal documents show that Mr. Haley fired pepper spray after the initial traffic stop and used a cellphone to take a photograph of Mr. Nichols, bloodied and propped up against a car, that he sent to friends.

Memphis police officials have also sought the decertification of Dewayne Smith, the police lieutenant who retired a day before a scheduled disciplinary hearing. At that hearing, officials said they would have recommended that Mr. Smith, the on-scene supervisor in the area that night, be fired, had he not retired.

In internal documents, the Memphis police said that after Mr. Smith had arrived on the scene, Mr. Nichols, his face bloodied and his wrists handcuffed, said “I can’t breathe” and slumped over. But Mr. Smith did not call for the handcuffs to be removed or remove them himself so that medical technicians could start to treat Mr. Nichols.

Mr. Smith is heard in body-camera video insinuating that Mr. Nichols was intoxicated, and told Mr. Nichols’s family that Mr. Nichols was in custody for driving under the influence, but there was no evidence of such charges.

Mr. Smith did not mention in his incident report or in two interviews with investigators that Mr. Nichols had trouble breathing, though he said so to another senior officer on duty. Officials said that Mr. Smith did not adequately take command that night and did not instruct officers “to disclose accurate details of physical force or preserving evidence.” And he was not wearing his body camera that night — a violation of department policy.

A few days before the commission’s hearing, Memphis police officials tried to rescind the request to decertify Mr. Smith, prompting frustration in Memphis, where some council members were already incensed at the possibility that he could retain his pension.

Ben Crump, a lawyer for the Nichols family, wrote on Twitter that it was “extremely disturbing” that the police force had allowed Mr. Smith to retire. “Memphis police and officials should do everything in their power to hold Lt. Smith accountable and not let his cowardice in resigning sidestep the consequences of his actions!”

By Thursday morning, the department had ceased trying to rescind the decertification request, a spokesman for the commission said. But since Mr. Smith had not been formally informed of the request and the hearing, the commission delayed offering a recommendation about him.

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