Demonstrators protest the killing of Tyre Nichols along Riverside Drive on Jan. 27 in Memphis.

Demonstrators protest the killing of Tyre Nichols along Riverside Drive on Jan. 27 in Memphis. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)

The Justice Department on Tuesday filed federal criminal charges against five former Memphis police officers, accusing them of violating the civil rights of Tyre Nichols, a Black man who died after being severely beaten during a traffic stop in January.

The four-count indictment represents the latest punitive action against the former officers, who face state second-degree murder charges, and the Memphis Police Department, which is undergoing a sweeping federal civil investigation over its culture, training and policies.

Federal authorities are accusing Emmitt Martin III, Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith, who are Black, of using excessive force and violating Nichols’s rights, as well as conspiring to make false statements to supervisors while reporting the incidents and obstructing justice during subsequent investigations.

Each former officer faces 20 years to life in prison, authorities said. The federal prosecution will proceed separately from the state murder case, authorities said. The defendants have pleaded not guilty to the state charges, which were filed in January.

Nichols, 29, was beaten by several Memphis officers on Jan. 7 and died three days later of his injuries in an incident caught on police surveillance and body-camera footage that was released to the public amid a widespread outcry.

“The country watched in horror as Tyre Nichols was kicked, punched, tased, and pepper sprayed, and we all heard Mr. Nichols cry out for his mother and say ‘I’m just trying to go home,’” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a videotaped statement Tuesday.

“Officers who violate the civil rights of those they are sworn to protect undermine public safety, which depends on the community’s trust in law enforcement,” Garland said. “They dishonor their fellow officers who do their work with integrity every day.” The Nichols family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Memphis, the police department, the police chief, fire department officials and the five former police officers involved in the beating.

Last month, Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy threw out charges in 30 cases investigated by the former police officers charged in Nichols’s death and reduced the charges in a dozen other cases. He cited concerns over the former officers’ credibility.

The officers were members of a specialized Scorpion unit, created in 2021, to patrol crime hot spots in Memphis, focusing on gang activity, drug crimes and vehicle thefts. The police department disbanded the unit after Nichols’s death, amid mounting public criticism that the unit used excessive force.

The federal indictment states that the former officers failed to inform emergency medical personnel of how Nichols had been injured and that the beating directly led to his death.

The former officers are alleged to have removed their body-worn cameras as they discussed the beating, saying phrases including “Everybody rocking his ass” and “I thought when he wasn’t going to fall, we about to kill this man.”

The former officers falsely told their superiors that Nichols had sought to avoid arrest by reaching for one of their gun belts and another’s police vest, according to the indictment.

Each also filed after-action reports that contained false and misleading information and omitted that the defendants had beaten Nichols, authorities said.

In a joint statement, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, attorneys for Nichols’s family, said the federal indictment “gives his family hope as they grieve his loss and inspire change in his honor.”

The charges came two months after the Justice Department launched a sweeping civil investigation into the Memphis police, an effort that is expected to take more than a year and could lead to a court-ordered consent decree mandating policy changes.

That probe will examine the department’s use of force, whether it has inappropriately targeted Black residents on traffic stops and whether it has discriminated more broadly against Black people, Justice officials said.

Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke said at a news conference in Memphis that federal investigators have begun meeting with local officials and community leaders as part of the civil probe.

Clarke said she met with Nichols’s parents Tuesday to inform them of the criminal charges.

“It is tragic to see a life cut short at 29,” she said. “Tyre Nichols should be alive today.”

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