Five former Memphis police officers were charged Tuesday with federal civil rights violations in the beatingdeath of Tyre Nicholsas they continue to fight second-degree murder charges in state courts arising from the killing.
Tadarrius Bean, Desmond Mills, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin and Justin Smith were indicted Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Memphis. The four-count indictment charges each of them with deprivation of rights under the color of law through excessive force and failure to intervene, and through deliberate indifference; conspiracy to witness tampering, and obstruction of justice through witness tampering.
“As Americans, our Constitution gives us certain basic rights when we interact with law enforcement officers,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the department’s Civil Rights Division said at a Tuesday news conference. “We have a right to be free from unreasonable force, a right to have other officers intervene to stop the unlawful assault and a right when in police custody to have urgent medical needs appropriately addressed and not met with deliberate indifference.”
“Tyre Nichols should be alive today,” she added.
The new charges come nine months after the violent beating of Nichols by police officers during a Jan. 7 traffic stop near his home in Memphis. Nichols died at a hospital three days later, and the five officers have pleaded not guilty to state charges of second-degree murder and other alleged offenses in connection with the case. The five officers charged in the case are Black, like Nichols.
Blake Ballin, an attorney representing Mills on the state criminal charges, said the federal indictment “is not unexpected” and Mills will defend himself against the federal charges as he is in state court.
William Massey, the attorney for Martin, said the federal charges were expected. “They are not a surprise,” he said in a text message.
There was no immediate response from attorneys for other defendants in the case.
Nichols, a 29-year-old who worked at FedEx, was the father of a 4-year-old boy. The youngest of four siblings, he was especiallyclose with his motherand has beendescribed by friends and familyas joyful and spiritual. He was an avid skateboarder and photographer.
Caught on police video, the beating of Nichols was one in a string of violent encounters between police and Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and police reform in the U.S.
The Justice Department announced an investigation in July into how Memphis Police Department officers use force and conduct arrests, one of several “patterns and practices” investigations it has undertaken in other U.S. cities.
At the time, Clarke said the decision was not based on a single incident or event or confined to a specific unit but was the result of interviews with residents and community members that reported multiple incidents involving police officers. On Tuesday, Clarke said the federal charges are separate from the investigation into police department.
Community members said officers “used force punitively” when faced with behavior “they perceived to be insolent,” Clarke said in July. There have also been reports that officers use force against people who are already restrained or in custody, Clarke said. The allegations are sufficient to warrant a full investigation into the police department, Clarke said.
In March, the Justice Department said it was conducting a separate review concerning use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialized units in the Memphis Police Department. Nichols’ mother has also sued the city and its police chief over her son’s death.
Cara Tabachnick and Caitlin Yilek contributed to this story.