Tyre Nichols death: white officer’s belated suspension raises questions

Memphis police named and fired all five Black officers involved on 20 January, but waited to reveal Preston Hemphill’s identity

Questions have been raised over why Memphis police waited weeks to name a white police officer involved in the beating death of Tyre Nichols, as it emerged an unnamed seventh officer and three emergency responders have also been disciplined over the case.

Major Karen Rudolph of Memphis police announced on Monday that the white officer in question, Preston Hemphill, was placed on desk duty on 8 January, a day after Nichols – who is Black – was beaten by police and two days before he died.

Police had named and fired five Black officers on 20 January – all of whom have since been charged with murder over Nichols’s death – but waited to reveal Hemphill’s identity.

On Tuesday, the civil rights attorney representing Nichols’s family, Ben Crump, said video footage from the beating shows Hemphill pulling Nichols from his car before shocking the 29-year-old with a Taser stun gun.

A copy of a police report written hours after Nichols’s beating mentions that Hemphill used a stun gun on Nichols. A photo of the police report first appeared on social media after being posted by the Memphis talkshow host Thaddeus Matthews, who is known as the the Cussing Pastor and said a source had provided it to him. The district attorney, Steven Mulroy, reportedly told the New York Times on Monday that his office had a police report the same as the one contained in the photograph posted by Matthews.

While video footage verifies the report’s description of Hemphill’s using a stun gun on Nichols, the document omits mention of the kicks and punches that officers unleashed on Nichols, the Times article added.

Neither Memphis police nor Mulroy’s office responded on Tuesday to requests for comment about the report, which sought to portray Nichols as violent and combative despite videos of his killing demonstrating nothing remotely close to that and instead contained horrifying images of him calling out for help from his mother.

According to Crump, the footage – including from officer body cameras – also captures Hemphill saying of colleagues at the scene: “I hope they stomp his ass.”

Crump criticized Memphis police for waiting to name Hemphill, who has not yet been fired or charged with a crime.

“Why is his identity and the role he played in Tyre’s death just now coming to light?” Crump said in a statement.

“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.

“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.”

In a statement on Monday, Rudolph said Hemphill and another unnamed officer were relieved of duty on 8 January while police investigated Nichols’s beating.

“Officer Preston Hemphill and the other officer’s actions and inactions have been and continue to be the subject of this investigation,” Rudolph said.

Rudolph said the internal investigation had initially focused on the five officers who were at the “second scene” where Nichols was assaulted. Nichols had fled from a traffic stop after being dragged from his car at that initial scene.

Hemphill was the third officer at the traffic stop that preceded the violent arrest but was not at the scene where Nichols was beaten, his lawyer Lee Gerald has said.

The new information came as fire department officials announced the firing of the emergency medical technicians Robert Long and JaMicheal Sandridge and Lt Michelle Whitaker in connection with Nichols’s death.

The fire chief, Gina Sweat, said in a statement that the department had 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 police gave them, “failed to conduct an adequate patient assessment of Mr Nichols”, the statement said. Whitaker and the driver remained in the vehicle.

An investigation determined that all three had violated “multiple” policies and protocols, the statement said.

News of the additional officers’ removal comes as calls for changes to American policing intensify after Nichols’s death.

The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Steven Horsford, said the group of 60 members of Congress had asked to meet with the president this week to “push for negotiations on much-needed national reforms to our justice system – specifically, the actions and conduct of our law enforcement”.

Joe Biden has called on Congress to pass police reforms, and Nichols’s death has renewed pressure on elected officials to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act.

The bill, drafted after a Minneapolis police officer murdered Floyd in May 2020, would ban chokeholds, create national standards for policing ostensibly to increase accountability, and reform qualified immunity, which shields police officers from civil liability for misconduct.

The legislation passed the US House – then controlled by Democrats – in March 2021 but stalled in the Senate. With the House now under Republican control, it remains to be seen whether progress can be made on the bill.

Ramon Antonio Vargas contributed reporting


Adam Gabbatt and Gloria Oladipo

The GuardianTramp

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