Rick Rojas, New York Times, July 27, 2023
The Justice Department said on Thursday that it had begun a sweeping civil rights investigation into policing in Memphis, digging into allegations of pervasive problems with excessive force and unlawful stops of Black residents that were amplified by the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols in January.
In announcing the investigation, officials specifically cited Mr. Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died after a traffic stop escalated into a brutal confrontation in which Memphis police officers kicked, pepper-sprayed and pummeled him, even as he was restrained, and then failed to render aid.
The beating, which was captured by body camera and surveillance footage, brought intense scrutiny onto how the Memphis Police Department operates. Residents and activists argued that Mr. Nichols’s case was anything but an isolated episode and was instead reflective of an aggressive approach that officers routinely took with Black people — particularly officers from specialized units patrolling high-crime areas, like those who stopped Mr. Nichols.
A preliminary review by the Justice Department lent credence to those claims, officials said.
The investigation is the ninth so-called pattern or practice inquiry that has been pursued by the Biden administration, following in the mold of other sprawling inquiries that were started across the country after high-profile cases of deadly police violence, including in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd and in Louisville, Ky., after the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor.
The review also found evidence suggesting unlawful stops, searches and arrests, and racial discrimination in street enforcement.
Federal officials said the civil rights investigation was separate from a continuing criminal investigation related to Mr. Nichols’s death. Five Memphis police officers have already been charged in state court with second-degree murder in connection with the fatal beating. All have pleaded not guilty to those charges.
The unit that stopped him — the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods unit — had been central to the city’s strategy to combating crime as the murder rate climbed.
The group, started in 2021, consisted of about 40 officers who drove unmarked vehicles, making traffic stops and hundreds of arrests as well as seizing weapons.
The unit relied on a common approach: stop a car over a minor infraction, like tinted windows or a cracked windshield. This led to officers finding narcotics, unregistered weapons, stolen cars and people with outstanding warrants. But it also precipitated people being aggressively subdued.
An investigation by The New York Times in February found that young Black men were disproportionately targeted by the unit, according to a review of arrest affidavits in about 150 cases handled by the unit.
In the sample reviewed by The Times, about 90 percent of those arrested by the unit were Black — much higher than the share of the city’s population that is Black, which is about 65 percent. Black residents across Memphis were also three times as likely as white residents to be subjected to physical force by police officers, according to department data over the past seven years.
In response to a push by Mr. Nichols’s family, the Police Department moved swiftly to disband the Scorpion unit, as city officials promised accountability. In the months since his death, the city has taken other steps to change police practices.
The City Council approved ordinances that, with rare exceptions, direct police officers to not make traffic stops in unmarked vehicles; ordered the collection of more data from officers; and added reviews of training and the use of force. The council also passed an ordinance that directs officers to not stop drivers for offenses often referred to as “poverty crimes,” like recently expired registrations, loose bumpers or having a single light out.