A 6th Memphis officer is off the force as the deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols spurs calls for national reform
By Nouran Salahieh, Holly Yan and Nick Valencia, CNN
Fallout from the deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols includes a sixth Memphis officer removed from duties as calls mount for criminal charges against more officers — and police reform nationwide.
Officer Preston Hemphill was part of the force’s now-disbanded SCORPION unit, a source familiar with his assignment confirmed to CNN. He “was relieved of duty with the other officers,” Memphis police Maj. Karen Rudolph said Monday.
Hemphill was put on leave at the start of the investigation into the brutal, two-part traffic stop on January 7, said police spokesperson Kimberly Elder, who declined to say whether he’s being paid or any other officers were put on leave.
Hemphill was the third officer at the initial stop of Nichols, the officer’s attorney said, noting, “He was never present at the second scene” and is cooperating with the investigation. Hemphill activated his body-worn camera, per department policy, and his footage was among videos released Friday by Memphis police, Lee Gerald added.
The official response to Nichols’ fatal police beating has been relatively swift: Five Black officers involved were fired and charged with murder and kidnapping, and their SCORPION unit was nixed for good. And new details of the case are emerging amid broader public scrutiny of how US police use force, especially against people of color.
Among the key questions still unresolved in the Nichols case:
• If more consequences — including charges — are coming for officers: Why more officers who were at the Nichols beating scene have not been disciplined or suspended is a key concern of City Council member Frank Colvett, he said Sunday.
Whether Hemphill or others will face criminal charges also isn’t clear. “We are looking at all of the officers and first responders at the scene,” Shelby County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson Erica Williams said Monday. “They could face charges, or they could not, but we are looking at everyone.”
It was “unprecedented” for indictment charges against the officers to come within just weeks, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told CNN on Sunday.
• How Memphis’ police chief will fare: While some have praised Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis‘ swift action in the case, she also created the controversial SCORPION unit 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 fire and sheriff’s personnel: Two Memphis Fire Department employees who were part of Nichols’ initial care were relieved of duty, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. And two deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office have been put on leave pending an investigation.
• 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.
Officials knew releasing video footage of Nichols’ beating without filing charges against the officers could be “incendiary,” Mulroy said. “The best solution was to expedite the investigation and to expedite the consideration of charges so that the charges could come first and then the release of the video.”
Footage 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.
He was left slumped to the ground in handcuffs. Another 23 minutes passed before a stretcher arrived at the scene. Nichols was hospitalized and died three days later.
“All of these officers failed their oath,” Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney representing the Nichols family, told CNN on Sunday. “They failed their oath to protect and serve. Look at that video: Was anybody trying to protect and serve Tyre Nichols?”
As a makeshift memorial grew over the weekend on the corner where Nichols was beaten, protesters marched from New York City to Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles.
Nichols’ family, now at the center of unfamiliar media attention, 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.
Family members also promised to “keep saying his name until justice is served.”
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.
The Memphis Police Association, the union representing them, declined to comment on the terminations beyond saying that 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,” according to a statement.
Each faces seven counts, the Shelby County district attorney’s office said, 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.
And some of the blows dealt to Nichols — including kicks to the head and strikes with a baton while he was subdued on the ground — could be deemed deadly, she said.
SCORPION unit tied to deadly beating gets axed
All five 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.
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.”
The case should give the city a chance to “dig deeper” into community and police relations, City Council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas said.
“We saw a very peaceful and direct sense of protest in the city of Memphis, and I think it’s because maybe we do have faith and hope that the system is going to get it right this time,” Easter-Thomas said.
Calls for police reform grow
Crump called on Congress to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2021 but not the evenly split Senate.
“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.
While Democrats hold the minority, with 24 representatives compared to 99 GOP representatives, this legislation is not partisan and should pass on both sides of the legislature, Rep. Joe Towns Jr. said.
“You would be hard-pressed to look at this footage (of Tyre Nichols) and see what happened to that young man, OK, and not want to do something,” he said. “If a dog in this county was beaten like that, what the hell would happen?”
Correction: An earlier version of this story had the wrong first name for Tyre Nichols.
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CNN’s Mark Morales, 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.