MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Memphis Police Department has disciplined an officer involved in the arrest, beating and death of Tire Nichols, the department said Monday, widening the circle of punishment for a murder. which has already led to the murder indictments of five officers and outraged the nation with another display of police brutality.
Officer Preston Hemphill, who is white, was relieved of his position shortly after Nichols’ arrest on Jan. 7, the department said. Five black officers were fired and charged last week with second-degree murder and other crimes for the beating and death of Nichols.
Also Monday, Fire Department officials announced the firing of emergency medical technicians Robert Long and JaMicheal Sandridge and the firing of Lt. Michelle Whitaker in connection with Nichols’ death.
Fire Chief Gina Sweat said in a statement that the department received a call from police responding to a report of a person being pepper-sprayed, and workers arrived as Nichols was handcuffed and leaning against a patrol car. Long and Sandridge, based on the nature of the call and information provided to them by police, “failed to conduct a proper evaluation of Mr. Nichols’s patient,” the statement said. Whitaker and the driver remained in the engine.
An investigation determined that all three violated “multiple” policies and protocols, according to the statement.
The murder of Nichols, who was also black, has sparked days of public debate about how police forces can treat black citizens with excessive violence, regardless of the race of both the police officers and the people under surveillance.
In body cam footage from the initial stop, Hemphill is heard saying that he surprised Nichols, declaring, “I hope he gets his ass stomped on.”
Nichols’ death was the latest example in a long series of early police accounts of the use of force that were later shown to downplay or ignore violent and sometimes deadly encounters.
Memphis Police Department officers used a stun gun, baton and their fists while beating Nichols during the nightly arrest. The footage shows Nichols running from officers to his home after he was pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving. Nichols, a 29-year-old father, was heard calling for his mother and was seen struggling with her injuries as he sat helplessly on the pavement, video posted Friday showed.
The five officers chatted and walked for several minutes while Nichols remained underground, but other authorities were on the scene. Two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies have been released from duty without pay while their conduct is investigated. Two Memphis Fire Department workers were also removed from their duties due to Nichols’ arrest.
The police department is responsible for internal disciplinary actions, such as firings, while the Shelby County District Attorney handles criminal investigations.
Hemphill was the third officer in a traffic stop that preceded the violent arrest, but was not at the scene where Nichols was struck, his attorney Lee Gerald said.
Lawyers for the Nichols family questioned Monday why the department did not disclose Hemphill’s discipline sooner and why he has not been fired or charged.
“We have asked from the beginning that the Memphis Police Department be transparent with the family and the community; this news seems to indicate that they have not risen to the occasion,” the statement from Ben Crump and Anthony Romanucci said. “It certainly raises the question as to why the white officer involved in this brutal attack was shielded and shielded from public view and, to date, given sufficient discipline and accountability.”
Memphis police spokeswoman Karen Rudolph said information about the disciplinary action taken against Hemphill was not immediately released because Hemphill was not fired. The department typically only releases information about an officer’s punishment after a department investigation into police misconduct ends, Rudolph said.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis told The Associated Press in an interview Friday that “the lack of oversight in this incident was a significant problem.”
“When officers are on duty, you should have at least one supervisor for each group or squad of people,” Davis said. “Not just someone who is in the office doing paperwork, someone who is really embedded in that unit.”
The Nichols family, their attorneys, and community activists have made strong and persistent calls for the firing or indictment of more officers who have peacefully protested in Memphis since the video was released. The video evoked the arrest of George Floyd in 2020 and the lack of intervention by officers.
On Saturday, Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, told The Associated Press that the family would “continue to seek justice and arrest more officers.”
“Questions were asked before the video was released, I raised those questions,” Wells said. “I felt like there were more than five officers out there. Now, five were charged with murder because they were the main participants, but there were five or six other officers out there who did nothing to help. So they are just as guilty as the officers who threw the punches.”
Memphis City Councilman Martavius Jones said he watched the video with his colleagues on Friday. He acknowledged Monday that Memphis police’s no-help and de-escalation policies appeared to have been violated.
“When everyone watched the video, we see that there are several officers standing around, when Mr. Nichols is distraught, that paints a totally different picture,” Jones said.
Jones said he thinks more officers should be disciplined.
“At this point, what’s going to be helpful to this community is to see how quickly the police chief deals with those other officers now that everyone has seen the tape and knows that it wasn’t just five officers that were on the scene all time. time,” Jones said.
The five fired officers and Hemphill were part of the so-called Scorpion unit, which targeted violent criminals in high-crime areas. Davis, the police chief, said Saturday that the unit has been disbanded.
Nichols’ funeral is scheduled for Wednesday at a Memphis church.
Adrian Sainz, The Associated Press