Former US police officers face federal charges over death of Tyre Nichols

The beating death of Tyre Nichols set off a wave of protests in the US, including this one in New York City on January 27 [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

The five officers are already facing state-level charges for beating Nichols, who died in the hospital three days later.

Five former police officers in the United States have been charged with federal civil rights violations in the beating death of Tyre Nichols, as they continue to fight second-degree murder charges in state courts.

Tadarrius Bean, Desmond Mills, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin and Justin Smith were indicted on Tuesday in US District Court in Memphis, Tennessee.

The four-count indictment charges each of them with deprivation of rights under the colour of law through excessive force, failure to intervene and deliberate indifference. They are also charged with conspiring to tamper with witnesses and obstruction of justice through witness tampering.

The new charges come nine months after the police officers violently beat Nichols during a January 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 offences in connection with the case. The five officers charged in the case are Black, like Nichols.

Blake Ballin, a lawyer representing Mills on the state criminal charges, said the federal indictment “is not unexpected” and that Mills will defend himself against the federal charges, as he is doing in state court.

William Massey, Martin’s lawyer, also said the federal charges were expected. “They are not a surprise,” he said in a text message.

There was no immediate response from the lawyers for the other defendants in the case.

Caught on police video, the beating of the 29-year-old Nichols was one in a string of violent encounters between police and Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate about police brutality and reform in the US.

The Department of Justice 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 US cities.

In March, the Justice Department said it was conducting a separate review concerning the use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialised units in the Memphis Police Department.

Nichols’s mother has sued the city and its police chief over her son’s death.

The five officers were part of a crime-suppression team known as Scorpion. Video showed they punched Nichols, kicked him and slugged him with a baton as he yelled for his mother. Authorities disbanded the Scorpion unit after Nichols’s death, though members of the unit have been moved to other teams.

The Memphis City Council subsequently passed an ordinance that outlawed so-called pretextual traffic stops, a practice wherein officers use minor violations like a broken tail light to pull over and investigate motorists for more serious crimes.

But some activists have complained that the ordinance has not been consistently enforced.

Elsewhere, a federal civil rights case was filed last year against four police officers in Louisville, Kentucky, over a drug raid that led to the death of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman whose fatal shooting helped fuel racial justice protests in 2020.

In Minneapolis, former police officers were convicted of violating the civil rights of George Floyd, whose death sparked those protests. Former officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to 21 years after pinning Floyd to the pavement for more than nine minutes as the Black man pleaded, “I can’t breathe.”



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