Two of the since-fired Memphis police officers charged with murdering Tyre Nichols failed to document their use of force in prior cases, and a pair of others were suspended from the department for other infractions, according to personnel records released on Tuesday evening.
Two of the officers charged in connection with Nichols’s beating death received written reprimands in 2021 for failing to fill out a department-required form after an instance in which force was needed to detain someone who was purportedly resisting arrest. Another officer had been twice suspended, once after a gun was discovered in the backseat of his squad car and another time for failing to submit paperwork. A fourth officer was suspended after being involved in a car accident in 2021 in an unmarked police vehicle.
The records offer new insight into the five officers who are suspected of murdering Nichols and had been part of the police department’s Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods – or Scorpion – unit, described as an elite group in the agency that was supposed to crack down on violent criminals.
Local criminal justice experts said the records alluded to wider allegations of routine overuse of force and highlighted how the department prioritized disciplinary matters.
“The files look pretty routine and indicate a department that’s more concerned with the police officers damaging their car than using excessive force,” Memphis criminal defense attorney Claiborne Ferguson remarked. “And the incidents of excessive force are exactly what our clients tell us about [concerning] their interaction with the Memphis police department.”
All of the officers – Desmond Mills, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith, and Tadarrius Bean – were fired last month, and Scorpion has been disbanded. Two additional police officers have been put on desk duty indefinitely, and three fire department members who were accused of failing to medically evaluate Nichols properly after the fatal beating have been fired.
Mills drew the department’s attention after an evening in March 2019 during which he went to help two officers who were trying to arrest a woman who had a damaged car and was suspected of drunk-driving.
Officers said the woman resisted arrest, and one of them struck her with a baton. Mills grabbed the woman’s arms, took her to the ground, and handcuffed her. The woman received bruises and facial abrasions during the encounter, records show.
The case should have prompted Mills to fill out a department-required form documenting his use of force. Even though Mills was aware of that requirement, he failed to fill out the form, later telling investigators he did not think it applied in that specific instance. More than two years later, in August of 2021, the department handed him a written reprimand.
Haley was involved in a similar case in February 2021. One evening, he was helping other officers investigate a report of shots fired at a Walgreens. One of the other officers saw two women laughing in a car parked nearby and decided to detain them. When police said one of the women resisted getting out of the car, Haley helped put handcuffs on her. The woman, who was arrested for disorderly conduct, said her shoulder was dislocated in the process.
After the encounter, Haley should have filled out the form documenting his use of force but failed to do so. He later told investigators he was “mistaken as to the use of force necessary” to require him to fill out the form. A lieutenant who was also present at the hearing told investigators Haley was “a hard working officer who routinely makes good decisions” and “he was sure this was a limited event”. The lieutenant also was issued a written reprimand.
Additionally, the records reveal that Martin, who joined the police force in March 2018, was suspended on two occasions. Martin – who moved to the Scorpion unit full-time on 16 November 2022 – was first suspended without pay in 2019 for three days after a loaded revolver was found wedged in the back of his patrol car at the end of a shift.
The files show that the gun was eventually found by another officer and that Martin and his patrol partner had been involved in two arrests during their shift. The suspects, therefore, could have used the weapon to harm the officers without them ever realizing it was in the car.
Martin later confessed that he had not performed adequate inspections of the vehicle before and after his shift. The officer was warned “this violation could have risen to the level of neglect of duty” but was charged with a lesser offense nonetheless.
Martin was suspended again in February 2021, following a September 2020 case in which he failed to submit a report over a domestic disturbance complaint and therefore breached department protocol.
The records show that Martin’s superiors spoke in his defense at a disciplinary hearing, describing Martin and his partner as “two of the … top producers” on their shift. Martin was still disciplined and received a one-day suspension without pay.
The officer’s file also shows that Martin – who was this week accused of a separate instance of brutality for allegedly threatening to shoot two Memphis residents in the face during an arrest – received high marks in his most recent annual performance review. The department described Martin as exceeding expectations in a section on “dealing with the public”.
“He is continually a top leader in arrest and calls, and not one person he has arrested has complained,” the report notes.
The records furthermore show that Smith, who joined the department in 2018 and moved to the Scorpion unit in October 2020, was also suspended for two days over a January 2021 case. The officer acknowledged his role in a car crash while driving an unmarked police vehicle with “excessive speed”.
A hearing summary noted that Smith “advise [sic] his memory is somewhat unclear due to his minor head injury caused by the deployment of the airbag”.
Bean, who joined the police department in 2020 and moved to the Scorpion unit in August 2022, is the only one of the five officers charged in relation to Nichols’s death not to have received any previous departmental discipline.
Nichols’s death three days after officers beat him on 7 January has reignited nationwide calls for reforms to American law enforcement less than three years after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd. Among other things, there have been calls for the creation of national standards that would aim to increase police accountability while stripping away qualified immunity shielding officers from civil liability for misconduct.
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