The beating led the Memphis police to fire seven officers, five of whom have been charged with second-degree murder and other counts, and prompted a spate of local, state and federal probes into what happened, with local police, sheriff’s deputies and fire personnel all drawing scrutiny. Additional criminal charges are also possible in the case, the local prosecutor’s office has said, while a federal civil rights probe is underway.
After the video footage of Nichols’s beating was released in late January, the Memphis police also shut down the specialized group — known as the Scorpion unit — where the five officers charged in his death were assigned.
The Justice Department said Wednesday that it plans to “produce a guide” for local police chiefs and mayors “to help them assess the appropriateness of the use of specialized units” and ensure proper oversight.
“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,” Vanita Gupta, the associate attorney general, said in a statement.
In Memphis, Cerelyn Davis, the police chief, has said her department has long lacked an appropriate number of supervisors. After Nichols’s death, she told the city council that the Scorpion unit did have a supervisor, but that person was “not present during the time that the incident occurred.” Davis initially defended the Scorpion unit after Nichols’s death, saying critics of the group wanted “to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
She later reversed course and shut down the unit.
The new federal review into the Memphis police force — which the Justice Department said came at the request of Davis and Jim Strickland, the city’s mayor — was announced hours before additional footage in the case is expected to be made public. The city of Memphis has said it plans to release another 20 hours of footage from the Nichols case on Wednesday afternoon, though officials have not specified what will be in the recordings.
The review falls short of what is known as a “pattern or practice” probe — a much more intensive type of investigation that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division may launch into police departments when it suspects potentially unlawful policing.
Pattern-and-practice investigations often result in court orders dictating reforms. Under Attorney General Merrick Garland, the department has launched such probes into the police in Minneapolis, Louisville, following deadly uses of force that fueled protests and unrest, and six other cities. The department has also charged dozens of individual law enforcement officials with civil rights offenses.
In Memphis, by comparison, the Justice Department says the review will be conducted by its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Rather than ending with any court-mandated agreement dictating specific changes, the review will conclude with a publicly-available report including its findings and recommended changes.
Robert Klemko and David Nakamura contributed to this report. This is a developing story. It will be updated.