For the African American community, the tragedy that has unfolded in the wake of the Tyre Nichols murder by Memphis police officers in January has implications that appear to extend well beyond the appalling scene of senseless brutality represented on global television.
The incident shattered the long-held hopes of many in the African American community that the presence of Black police officers would somehow reduce the instances of savage assaults by police against Black people that we’ve witnessed around the nation for decades. As evidence surfaced that the Nichols case was not the first time that most of the officers had been involved in prior disciplinary action for misconduct, many African Americans were likely not surprised but rather ashamed once the offenders were clearly identified.
The officers worked for a so-called special unit known as SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) that the city retired after Nichols’ death. It made some 566 arrests in its year and a half in existence, according to Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland.
Four of the five now former Memphis Police officers, charged in Nichols’ death, had previous infractions with the department, according to national media reports. The officers, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Jr., Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith and Tadarrius Bean, were terminated Jan. 20 and have now been charged with the murder of 29-year-old Nichols.
Four of those officers — Haley, Martin, Mills and Smith — were previously reprimanded or suspended and cited for such infractions as failure to report when they used physical force, failure to report a domestic dispute, or for damages sustained to their squad cruisers. Bean did not have any infractions in the files. Here is a look at their records.
Haley began his career with the department in August 2020. He violated departmental policy in February 2021, when he failed to fill out a response to resistance form after he grabbed a woman’s arm to handcuff her. The forms must be completed if an officer uses any part of their body to compel compliance.
In a hearing, Haley claimed that he underestimated the amount of force needed to require filling out the form. He was praised by his boss who said he was a “hard-working officer” who “routinely makes good decisions” and “he was sure that this was a limited event.” Haley was given a written reprimand.
In August 2021, Haley ran his cruiser into a stop sign while responding to a call about an assault. During the hearing, he said that as he was rushing to the scene when a call came in over the radio that an officer was holding the suspect at gunpoint. “I was mainly thinking about the officer’s safety,” he said.
The hearing officer filed a report indicating that “Officer Haley took full ownership for the accident and was honest during the hearing,” and the violation was overturned.
Desmond Mills, Jr.
Mills completed his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at West Virginia State University in 2013, and began at the Memphis Police Department in late winter 2017.
Two years later in 2019, Mills violated procedure when he dropped his personal digital assistant (PDA) on the street while entering his squad car. The device was then crushed when run over by a separate car. It was Mills’ first infraction, and he immediately reported the incident to his union representative, so he received a written reprimand, according to department records.
Later that month, Mills failed to file a response to resistance form when he used physical force to take a woman down to the ground so she could be handcuffed and arrested. In the hearing in August 2021, Mills said he did not realize his actions necessitated use of the form and was again issued a written reprimand.
Emmitt Martin III
Martin graduated from Bethel University in 2015, with a degree in criminal justice and started at the department in March 2018.
In March 2019, a loaded handgun was discovered in the backseat of a squad car used by Martin and his partner. Martin claimed that he failed to do a proper pre- and post-shift inspection, and only inspected the car from the outside. During his shift, he and his partner ran a couple of traffic stops, in which the suspects were placed in the backseat where the gun was found. Additionally, the officers did not inspect the vehicle after the suspects left it, as is protocol. Martin was issued a three-day suspension without pay, according to the files.
In September 2020, Martin violated policy by mishandling a domestic abuse complaint between two sisters. The husband of one of the sisters requested a report. Martin did not take the report and said he did not believe one was required. He stated that the parties involved were intoxicated and the man’s wife – the alleged victim of abuse – declined the report. The responding officers, including Martin, threatened to arrest the involved parties if they had to take a report, records show. He was later defended by his superiors, and was issued a one-day suspension without pay.
In a 2021 performance evaluation, Martin ranked as exceeding expectations in dealing with the public. According to his lieutenant, “Officer Martin is respectful when dealing with others regardless of their sex, race, age, or rank. He approaches his calls with a positive attitude and is well received when dealing with the public. He is continually a top leader in arrests and calls, and not one person he has arrested has complained.”
Apparently, the assessment did not consider the case of Glenn Harris and Demarius Hervey. Harris, 24, and Hervey, 27, said in a 2020 interview with NBC that former Memphis Police Officer Emmitt Martin III approached them at a gas station in August 2020.
The men — who say they are brothers — told the outlet they had been smoking marijuana and were in possession of an unregistered gun at the time and had tried to flee. They reportedly said they had tried to flee in Harris’ car but crashed it after eluding cops for about two miles.
When Martin caught up with them, he wrestled Harris on the ground, stuck his revolver in his face and said, “I’ll blow your face off,” the man reportedly claimed.
Other city residents have shared their experiences of other aggressive encounters with the unit — including 22-year-old Monterrious Harris, who has filed a federal suit against the city and those same five police officers for allegedly beating him without cause just three days before they pulled Nichols over.
Smith began at the department in March 2018. In January 2021, he was passing a vehicle and crashed into its rear, causing it to spin and crash into a third vehicle, which had two people inside. All parties were sent to the hospital in non-critical condition.
Smith said the driver of the second vehicle went right and then left into his lane suddenly. He admitted to speeding, but said his memory was somewhat unclear due to his minor head injury from the airbag, according to a summary from the disciplinary hearing.
Smith was issued a citation, suspended for two days without pay and ordered to take remedial driver training.
Bean started with Memphis police in August 2020. He had no prior infractions from the department on his record.
Demands for Accountability
The Nichols family has continued to reiterate demands for police accountability. They’ve called for changes in federal law that would tighten rules on police conduct and make it easier to sue officers accused of wrongdoing. They have described what happened to Tyre as “a disgrace to this country.”
“People all around the world watched the videotape of a man, unarmed and unprovoked, being beat to death by officers of the law,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, speaking at the Mason Temple, the church where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final speech the day before he was killed.
No national database exists with records of officers found guilty of misconduct who resign or are fired, meaning in a lot of cases they can apply for jobs in other police agencies and departments. There is, however, a national data system for officers who lose their certification.
“We talk a lot about gang bangers in the streets and what colors they wear,” Sharpton added. “In Memphis, it looks like they wear the blue color, that uniform.”
Perhaps most vexing to community members may be the unanswered larger question of how five, well-intentioned, young Black men who joined the police force to address the problem of police brutality disintegrate into the very instruments of that same inhumanity?