By Adrian Sainz
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The Memphis Police Department has disciplined an officer involved in the arrest, beating and death of Tyre Nichols, the department said Monday, widening the circle of punishment for a killing that has already led to the murder indictment of five officers and outraged the nation with another display of police brutality.
Officer Preston Hemphill, who is white, was relieved of duty shortly after Nichols’ Jan. 7 arrest, the department said. Five Black officers were fired and charged last week with second-degree murder and other offenses in Nichols’ beating and death.
Also Monday, Fire Department officials announced the firing of emergency medical technicians Robert Long and JaMicheal Sandridge and fire Lt. Michelle Whitaker in connection with Nichols’ death.
Fire Chief Gina Sweat said in a statement that the department received a call from police to respond to a report of a person who had been pepper-sprayed, and the workers arrived as Nichols was handcuffed and leaning up against a squad car. Long and Sandridge, based on the nature of the call and information they were told by police, “failed to conduct an adequate patient assessment of Mr. Nichols,” the statement said. Whitaker and the driver remained in the engine.
An investigation determined that all three violated “multiple” policies and protocols, the statement said.
The killing of Nichols, who was also Black, has led to days of public discussion of how police forces can treat Black citizens with excessive violence, regardless of the race of both the police officers and the people being policed.
On body camera footage from the initial stop, Hemphill is heard saying that he stunned Nichols and declaring, “I hope they stomp his ass.”
Nichols’ death was the latest example in a long string of early police accounts regarding use of force that were later shown to have minimized or ignored violent and sometimes deadly encounters.
Memphis Police Department officers used a stun gun, a baton and their fists as they pummeled Nichols during the nighttime arrest. Footage shows Nichols running away from officers toward his house after he was pulled over on suspicion of reckless driving. Nichols, a 29-year-old father, was heard calling for his mother and seen struggling with his injuries as he sat helpless on the pavement, video footage released Friday showed.
The five officers chatted and milled about for several minutes as Nichols remained in the ground, but there were other authorities on the scene. Two Shelby County sheriff’s deputies have been relieved of duty without pay while their conduct is investigated. Two Memphis Fire Department workers were also removed from duty over Nichols’ arrest.
The police department is responsible for internal disciplinary measures, such as firings, while the Shelby County’s district attorney handles criminal investigations.
Hemphill was the third officer at a traffic stop that preceded the violent arrest but was not at the scene where Nichols was beaten, his lawyer Lee Gerald said.
Lawyers for the Nichols family, questioned Monday why the department did not disclose Hemphill’s discipline earlier 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 haven’t risen to the occasion,” said the statement from Ben Crump and Anthony Romanucci,. “It certainly begs the question why the white officer involved in this brutal attack was shielded and protected from the public eye, and to date, from sufficient discipline and accountability.”
[Memphis authorities release video in Tyre Nichols’ death]
Memphis police spokeswoman Karen Rudolph said information on disciplinary action taken against Hemphill was not immediately released because Hemphill was not fired. The department generally only gives out 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 a “lack of supervision in this incident was a major problem.”
“When officers are working, you should have at least one supervisor for every group or squad of people,” Davis said. “Not just somebody who’s at the office doing the paperwork, somebody who’s actually embedded in that unit.”
Calls for more officers to be fired or charged have been loud and persistent from the Nichols family, their lawyers, and community activists who have peacefully protested in Memphis since the video was released. The video was evocative of the arrest of George Floyd in 2020 and officers’ failure to intervene.
On Saturday, Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, told The Associated Press that the family was going to “continue to seek justice and get some more officers arrested.”
“Questions were raised before the video was released, I raised those questions,” Wells said. “I just felt there was 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 that didn’t do anything to render any aid. So they are just as culpable as the officers who threw the blows.”
Memphis City Council member Martavius Jones said he watched the video with colleagues on Friday. He acknowledged Monday that Memphis police policies of failure to render aid and de-escalation appeared to have been violated.
“When everybody saw the video, we see that you have multiple officers just standing around, when Mr. Nichols is in distress, that just paints a totally different picture,” Jones said
Jones said he believes more officers should be disciplined.
“At this point, what’s going to be helpful for this community is to see how swiftly the police chief deals with those other officers now that everybody has seen the tape and knows that is wasn’t only five officers who were at the scene the entire 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 service is scheduled for Wednesday at a Memphis church.