MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The United States Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the Memphis Police Department and the city of Memphis to determine whether there is a pattern of constitutional or civil rights violations against citizens.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division announced the investigation Thursday in Memphis.

“We received multiple reports of officers escalating encounters with community members, resulting in excessive force. There are also indications that officers may use force punitively when they face behavior they perceive to be insolent,” Clarke said.

Other allegations include officers using force against people who are already restrained, and traffic enforcement that may be targeting Black drivers for minor citations.

“Our review indicates that, even in a majority Black city, MPD’s traffic enforcement may focus disproportionately on the Black community,” Clarke said. “Black drivers receive a significant share of vehicle citations, such as for tinted windows or broken taillights, and the information also suggests that these disparities are not new here in Memphis.”

Watch Thursday’s full press conference above.

In January, Memphis police officers were involved in the beating death of Tyre Nichols, who had been pulled over by police for an alleged traffic infraction. The case has made national headlines and led to criminal charges against several officers and the disbanding of a Memphis Police unit.

Tyre Nichols and Memphis Police: What we Know

But Clarke said the investigation was not based on a single incident or police unit. Rather, it comes after multiple reports of MPD officers allegedly escalating incidents, using force punitively, sometimes against subjects who are already restrained, and targeting Black drivers for minor traffic violations.

The Justice Department announced in March a separate review concerning the use of force, de-escalation strategies, and specialized units in the Memphis Police Department. Federal investigators also are looking specifically into Nichols’ arrest and death. And, Nichols’ mother has sued the city and its police chief over her son’s death.

“The tragic death of Tyre Nichols created enormous pain in the Memphis community and across the country,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news release.

Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, told the Associated Press that he hopes the probe will lead to changes in the way police deal with Memphis citizens.

“We’re moving in the right direction, trying to get some justice,” Wells said.

The office of Kevin Ritz, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, is partnering in the investigation.

“The police officers who risk their lives every day in the line of duty need the public to trust them. Community trust makes policing more effective and less dangerous for both officers and the people they protect,” Ritz said. “To build and maintain that trust, law enforcement must conduct themselves constitutionally and lawfully.” 

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Chief C.J. Davis had been briefed before the announcement, Clarke said.

Chief Davis said the Memphis Police Department would cooperate fully with the DOJ in its investigation.

“As we have said all along, all MPD officers are expected to act in accordance with their oath of office, their training, and department policies at all times,” she said in a statement released after the announcement. “While the officers involved in the Tyree (sic) Nichols case demonstrated no
regard for these tenets, I am appreciative of the MPD officers who continue to serve our city with integrity. As Chief of Police, I am committed to building and maintaining public trust with the citizens of Memphis that we took an oath to serve each and every day.”

Mayor Strickland said the city already had cooperated with the DOJ in a previous independent review and would be a “good partner” in the current investigation. However, he took issue with the department, saying it initiated the investigation without discussion.

“I am disappointed that my request was not granted by the Department of Justice to discuss this step before a decision was made to move down this path,” Strickland said. “I know they discussed the need for such an action with many other individuals. I hope the remainder of the process is more forthright and inclusive than it has been so far.”

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Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy said he was pleased to see DOJ was investigating MPD.

“While I’m sure most officers are people of good faith, we have systemic issues we need to address,” Mulroy said. “The Tyre Nichols incident was not a one-off, but suggests wider problems of culture.”

Despite Mulroy’s appreciation, he did acknowledge this probe is long overdue when you consider that DOJ says it received multiple complaints about MPD.

“It shouldn’t have taken this long. I think that’s a failure of leadership over the last decade or so,” Mulroy said. “People who have been in charge should have taken this problem more seriously and it is a shame that it took a tragedy, like the Tyre Nichols situation, to get national attention focused on us.”

Van Turner, former NAACP Memphis Branch President and candidate for Memphis mayor, called the investigation an important step.

“We have to do everything in our power to make sure what happened to Tyree Nichols never happens again,” Turner said in part. “It’s important to get justice for his family and just as important for this historic civil rights city to be a place where tragic wrongs are met with the right actions and reactions.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) said she was hopeful the investigation would lead to systemic change at MPD.

“Our families are sick and tired of crime and they need our police department to succeed. But well-meaning officers cannot build trust if the department does not holistically address the failures it has made in the past,” she said.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Tyre Nichols’ family in a multimillion lawsuit against the city, also weighed in.

“It is our hope that the investigation by the DOJ, under the leadership of Attorney General Garland and Assistant Attorney General Clarke, will provide a transparent account of the abuses of power we have seen and continue to see in Memphis,” Crump said.

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Five officers have pleaded not guilty to criminal charges including second-degree murder in the Jan. 7 beating of Nichols after a traffic stop — and his death three days later.

The five officers charged in the case are Black. So was Nichols.

The officers were part of a crime-suppression team known as Scorpion. They punched Nichols, kicked him, and slugged him with a baton as he yelled for his mother. Davis disbanded the Scorpion unit after Nichols’ death, though members of the unit have been moved to other teams.

In addition to the officers fired and charged with murder, one white officer who was involved in the initial traffic stop has been fired. That officer will not face charges. Another officer, who has not been identified, also has been fired. An additional officer retired before he could be fired.

Activists have been calling for a pattern or practice investigation into Memphis police for years stemming from several encounters with the public, including the fatal shooting of Darrius Stewart, a Black man who was killed by a white officer during a traffic stop in 2015, and a federal court order about improper police surveillance of activists.

“This is a necessary step in ensuring the citizens of Memphis have our civil rights protected and that we moving beyond tacit political talking points regarding criminal justice reform,” said Memphis activist Earle Fisher.

The Memphis City Council passed an ordinance earlier this year that outlawed so-called pretextual traffic stops, which include minor violations such as a broken tail light. But some activists have complained that the ordinance has not been consistently enforced.

In June, a similar Justice Department probe alleged that Minneapolis police systematically discriminated against racial minorities, violated constitutional rights and disregarded the safety of people in custody for years before George Floyd was killed.

And in March, the department found Louisville police engaged in a pattern of violating constitutional rights and discrimination against the Black community following an investigation prompted by the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor.

The investigations can take years — both the Louisville and Minneapolis probes were launched in April 2021.

Depending on their findings, the investigations can result in agreements that require reforms that are overseen by an independent monitor and are approved by a federal judge. The federal oversight can continue for years.

Representatives G.A. Hardaway, Joe Towns, Justin J. Pearson, and Jesse Chism, along with other local leaders, have scheduled a press conference at 4:30 on Thursday to discuss this investigation.

Data from MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau shows that around 1,200 out of the more than 800,000 calls for service last year involved the officer using force of some type.

For example, in 2016, a Memphis police officer was caught on camera using a stun gun on a man in handcuffs alleging the man pulled away when being put into the squad car.

Later that year, body cameras recorded the arrest of a teenager during a traffic stop where an officer placed his right arm around the girl’s neck, which she says caused her to have breathing problems.