September 26, 2023

MEMPHIS — The five former officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man pulled over during a traffic stop in Memphis last month, filed into a courtroom on Friday and pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges.

Police body-worn cameras as well as surveillance footage captured the officers punching, kicking and striking Mr. Nichols with a baton repeatedly for about three minutes — an attack that the city’s police chief, Cerelyn Davis, has described as “a classic example of officers with a wolf pack mentality.”

But in the weeks since the attack, some activists and community leaders have said that blaming only the “mentality” of the officers involved is a way to keep the blame — and focus — from moving up the chain of command.

“They’ve attempted to provide surface and superficial, maybe even symbolic explanations,” said Earle J. Fisher, an activist and pastor at Abyssinian Baptist Church, who noted that the five men charged all held the rank of police officer.

Not one was a supervisor, which has drawn attention to a systemic weakness within the Memphis Police Department. For years, police officers have patrolled the streets with less supervisory oversight than their counterparts in other large cities, in part because of recruitment and retention problems, according to reports on police staffing levels.

In big-city police departments across the country, it is often typical for there to be one frontline supervisor, typically a sergeant, for every six or seven police officers. But in Memphis, the ratio is about one supervisor for every 10 officers, Chief Davis told the City Council last week.

“None of our units have a sufficient amount of supervisors,” she said.

The five officers charged — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — all of them Black, had been part of a specialized street crime unit called Scorpion, which was formed in late 2021 with a mandate to help bring down rising crime rates. Driving muscle cars and wearing modified police uniforms and plainclothes, officers from the unit pulled over countless motorists for low-level violations, which regularly led to drug and gun seizures. The mayor credited the unit with contributing to a drop in the city’s homicide rate.

But the unit quickly developed a reputation for heavy-handed tactics, and a lawyer for Mr. Nichols’s family, Ben Crump, said on Friday that Mr. Nichols’s death was the direct result of this aggressive style of policing.

“The Scorpion unit had a pattern and practice of doing this to Black people in Memphis — that’s it,” he said. “They trample on the constitutional rights and human rights of Black and brown citizens. They don’t do that in the white communities to white citizens.”

On Jan. 7, Mr. Nichols was stopped by Scorpion officers and pulled from his car in what the police initially characterized as a stop for reckless driving. He ran, and when officers caught up to him, they began to beat him, according to video footage from the scene. At one point, two officers held him up so a third could deliver baton blows.

The first supervisor to reach the scene — a lieutenant — appeared in video footage to arrive about six minutes after the beating ended with a final kick. At that point, officers could be seen standing around recounting what just occurred, appearing at some points to cast themselves as the victims and Mr. Nichols as the aggressor. By then, Mr. Nichols sat slumped and unmoving, propped up against a police car.

To be sure, the presence of a supervisor does not always prevent unlawful force, and can even in some circumstances embolden officers to violate civil rights. Three decades ago, a Los Angeles police sergeant, Stacey Koon, was convicted on charges of violating Rodney King’s civil rights by “willfully permitting” officers under his supervision to kick, stomp and beat Mr. King with batons.

“After Rodney King, people would ask, ‘Why didn’t the supervisor intervene?’ But in Memphis they’re asking, ‘Where was the supervisor?’” said Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a think tank on policing based in Washington.

In recent weeks, Mr. Wexler said, he has had numerous conversations with police commanders around the country on why there appeared to be no supervisors immediately on scene in Memphis.

Chief Davis of the Memphis Police Department has told the City Council that the officers accused of murdering Mr. Nichols did have an assigned supervisor, though that person was “not present during the time when the incident occurred.”

Around the country, specialized street crime units typically have even tighter supervision than regular patrols. In New York City, for instance, anti-crime teams — small plainclothes squads that have made a disproportionate number of gun arrests over the years — have often been composed of just a sergeant and three or four officers, with the sergeant generally accompanying officers on patrol. That makes the lack of supervisors present at the scene in Memphis all the more striking.

“This is highly unusual — having that many officers in a specialized unit with no supervisor on scene,” Mr. Wexler said.

After Mr. Nichols’s death, the Scorpion unit was disbanded with its officers reassigned to other units.

During Friday’s brief arraignment, the five former officers quickly filed in and out of the courtroom as their lawyers entered not guilty pleas on their behalf. They wore masks, and their expressions were largely hidden.

In addition to murder charges, the officers face a range of other charges including official misconduct, official oppression and kidnapping.

In a hallway outside the courtroom after Friday’s arraignment, a prosecutor in the case conveyed a sense of urgency.

“Memphis, and the whole world, needs to see that what’s right is done in this case, and it needs to happen sooner rather than later,” Paul Hagerman, an assistant district attorney, said.

Meanwhile, a defense lawyer for one of the officers told reporters that raw emotion must not overtake the need for a fair trial. “It must be based on the facts and the law, and not the raw emotions our country is currently experiencing,” said Blake Ballin, who represents Mr. Mills.

A sixth officer who fired a Taser at Mr. Nichols as he ran away has been fired. Seven more police officers are being investigated for policy violations in connection with the beating, though city officials have said little about the specifics. In addition, two sheriff’s deputies who arrived at the scene were suspended for five days without pay for departmental violations, including failing to keep their body-worn cameras on.

Mr. Nichols died three days after the beating.

The Nichols family’s lawyer, Mr. Crump, noted in a news conference that on the night of the fatal beating, Mr. Nichols was trying to defuse the situation and communicate with the officers, even as they were shouting at him and threatening him.

“While everybody else was escalating it, using excessive force, Tyre was de-escalating, trying to do everything in his power to remain calm,” Mr. Crump said. “That’s who Tyre Nichols was.”

At the same news conference, Mr. Nichols’s mother pledged to be at every court date. She observed that the five officers had been unwilling to even look at her in the courtroom that morning.

“They didn’t even have the courage to look at me in my face after what they did to my son,” his mother, RowVaughn Wells, said.

She said she felt numb.

“I’m waiting for this nightmare that I’m going through right now, I’m waiting for someone to wake me up,” she said. “But I also know that’s not going to happen. I know my son is gone, that I’ll never see him again.”

Reporting was contributed by Matthew Rosenberg, Mark Walker, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Emily Cochrane.

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