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Memphis committee recommends replacing police chief, 1 year after Tyre Nichols death

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis speaks to the city council as Mayor Paul Young stands behind her at city hall on Tuesday.
Chris Day
/
The Commercial Appeal via AP
Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "C.J." Davis speaks to the city council as Mayor Paul Young stands behind her at city hall on Tuesday.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis City Council committee voted Tuesday to replace police chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis a year after the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by five officers generated intense criticism of her department and led to a federal investigation into how it fights crime.

The council's executive committee, which includes all of the council's 13 members, recommended by a 7 -6 vote to reject the reappointment of Davis. The council will vote later on a binding vote on the fate of Davis, who was hired by the city in 2021.

The new mayor — Paul Young, who took office Jan. 1 after he was elected in November — had sought the reappointment of Davis, saying he firmly believed she was the right person for the job but that he would make a change if she did not produce the results the city needs. Davis was appointed by previous Mayor Jim Strickland, who left office due to term limits.

Davis was in charge of the department when Nichols, who was Black, was hit with a stun gun, pepper sprayed, punched and kicked by officers after a traffic stop. The officers were part of a crime-suppression team called the Scorpion unit, which was established in 2021, after Davis took over as Memphis Police Director.

Nichols died on Jan. 10, 2023 — three days after the beating — and camera footage of it was released publicly. The beating was part of a series of cases of police brutality against Black people that sparked protests and renewed debate the need for police reform in the U.S.

In all, seven officers were fired for violating department policies, resulting in Nichols' death, while an eighth was allowed to retire before he could be fired.

Five of the fired officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — were charged with second-degree murder and other offenses in state court, and with civil rights violations in federal court. The five officers are Black.

Mills pleaded guilty in November to federal charges of excessive force and obstruction of justice. The plea is part of a larger deal in which prosecutors said he had also agreed to plead guilty later to state charges. The four other officers have pleaded not guilty to the state and federal charges.

The officers said they pulled Nichols over because he was driving recklessly, but Davis, the police director, has said no evidence was found to support that allegation.

Davis disbanded the Scorpion unit after the beating, and was initially praised for quickly firing the officers. But Nichols' death shined a bright light on the department and Davis, and calls for her ouster increased among activists and citizens frustrated with an increase in overall crime — which includes a city-record 398 homicides and a jump in auto burglaries to more than 14,000 last year.

The U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation in July into how Memphis police officers use force and conduct arrests, one of several "patterns and practices" investigations it has undertaken in other cities. The probe is looking at how officers use force and conduct arrests, and answers long-standing calls for such an investigation from critics of the way police treat minorities in majority-Black Memphis.

In March, the Justice Department said it was conducting a separate review concerning use of force, de-escalation strategies and specialized units in the police department.

Davis, the city and the former officers are also being sued by Nichols' mother in federal court. Filed in April, the $550 million lawsuit blames them for his death and accuses Davis of allowing the Scorpion unit's aggressive tactics to go unchecked despite warning signs.

The committee meeting was contentious at times, with council members questioning Davis about her record and whether her officers support her. A group of uniformed police officers sat in the audience in support of their boss. Some audience members held signs saying "We support chief Davis," while others had signs saying "No on chief Davis."

Davis made a presentation that detailed accomplishments during her tenure, including hiring more than 400 officers and expanding community-oriented policing. Young also spoke in support of her and the other people he recommended for appointment to city jobs.

But council chair JB Smiley Jr., who voted against Davis' reappointment, said Memphis "deserves better."

"Chief Davis had two and a half years," Smiley said. "That's ample time to get it right."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press