(CNN) — Fallout from the deadly police beating of Tyre Nichols now includes a sixth Memphis officer removed from duties, demands for more criminal charges against officers and calls for nationwide police reform.
Officer Preston Hemphill “was relieved of duty with the other officers” involved in the January 7 encounter with Nichols, Memphis police Maj. Karen Rudolph said Monday.
Hemphill has actually been on administrative leave since the beginning of the investigation, Memphis police spokesperson Kimberly Elder told CNN. Elder declined to say whether Hemphill is being paid or whether any other officers were put on leave.
Body cam footage reveals Hemphill fired a Taser stun gun at Nichols and saying, “One of them prongs hit the bastard.”
Later, Hemphill says to another officer: “I hope they stomp his ass.”
Five other Memphis officers have been fired and face charges of second-degree murder in connection with the beating death of Nichols.
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.
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 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.”
But officials knew releasing video footage of Nichols’ beating without filing charges against officers could be “incendiary,” Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said Sunday. “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,” he said.
Video of the gruesome beating “outraged” the Memphis police chief. The footage showed “acts that defy humanity,” Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said.
The attack has fueled broader public scrutiny of how US police use force, especially against people of color. And weeks after Nichols’ death, many questions remain. Among them:
• Whether more officers will face charges or other: Memphis City Council member Frank Colvett said he wanted to know why more officers at the scene of Nichols’ beating scene had not been disciplined or suspended.
It’s also not clear whether Hemphill or others will face criminal charges. “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 weeks, said Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney.
• 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 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.
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.
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,” 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 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.
Family members 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.
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.
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
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, the officer placed on administrative leave, was also a member of the SCORPION unit, a source familiar with his assignment confirmed to CNN.
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?”
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