The Memphis City Council began to discuss nearly a dozen public safety proposals and reforms and grilled the city’s police chief and fire chief on Tuesday morning at the council’s first public hearing since the release of disturbing video showing the police beating of Tyre Nichols.
“The month of January has deeply affected all of us and continues to do so, serving as a clarion call for action,” councilwoman Rhonda Logan said. “Today our focus will be on peeling back the layers of public safety in our city and collaborating on legislation that moves us forward in an impactful and intelligent way.”
The council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee was set to take up 11 proposals in all, including an ordinance to establish a procedure for an independent review of police training; an ordinance to clarify “appropriate” ways of conducting traffic stops; an ordinance to require police only to make traffic stops with marked cars; and a presentation on a civilian law enforcement review board, according to an online agenda.
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ”Davis and Fire Chief Gina Sweat spoke at the hearing and presented their plans for changing their departments going forward. The officials also answered questions from council members frustrated with the responses.
The hearing comes about a month after Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was beaten by Memphis police officers with the specialized SCORPION unit following a traffic stop not far from his family’s home. He was taken to the hospital afterward and died three days later.
The city released body-camera and surveillance footage in late January that showed officers repeatedly punching, kicking and using a baton on Nichols while his hands were restrained. They then left him without medical care for more than 20 minutes, the video shows.
The video contradicted what officers said happened in the initial police report, which had indicated Nichols “started to fight” with officers and at one point grabbed one of their guns.
His death has renewed calls for police reform and reignited a national conversation on justice in policing.
Five officers involved in the beating, all of whom are Black, were fired and were indicted on charges of second-degree murder. In addition, a sixth officer was fired, and a seventh was put on leave. Further, the Fire Department fired two EMTs and a lieutenant for failing to render emergency care.
The specialized SCORPION unit also was disbanded, less than two years after it was put into place.
Sweat, the fire chief, told the council that training issues and the failure of EMTs to take personal accountability on a call were to blame for her department’s handling of Nichols.
The dispatch call involving Nichols came in as a report of pepper spray, Sweat said. She described that as a “fairly routine call” – there have been over 140 pepper spray calls in the last six months – and the EMTs and lieutenant on scene treated it as such.
“They did not have the video to watch to know what happened before they got there, so they were reacting to what they saw and what they were told at the scene,” Sweat said. “Obviously, they did not perform at the level that we expect or that the citizens of Memphis deserve.”
According to Sweat, she saw the video of Nichols’ beating when it was released to the public, but an EMS chief had reviewed it days prior. Before the video was released on Friday, managers had already scheduled an administrative hearing with the employees involved for Monday, said the chief.
“They did not perform within the guidelines and the policies that are already set. And that’s why they’re no longer with us,” the fire chief said.
Councilman Frank Colvett Jr. said the Fire Department’s timeline of when it saw the video was an issue.
“As the director of fire, there is a problem. I think it’s very clear to you now that solutions are required. And I understand procedures were not followed, and I understand we are looking at it. But it’s got to be more than that. OK, director, it’s got to be this is what we see and this is how we’ll fix it,” Colvett said.
Prior to his death, Nichols had worked with his stepfather at FedEx for about nine months, his family said. He was fond of Starbucks, skateboarding in Shelby Farms Park and photographing sunsets, and he had his mother’s name tattooed on his arm, the family said. He also had the digestive issue known as Crohn’s disease and so was a slim 140 to 150 pounds, despite his 6’ 3” height, his mother said.
Nichols’ mother and stepfather, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, are among the first lady’s guests at President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night.
Biden hosted members of the Congressional Black Caucus at the White House last week to discuss police reform, which has stalled in Congress multiple times and faces an uncertain path forward.