Tyre Nichols’s family has sued the city of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department, as well as several city employees and former police officers, over his death in January.
Filed in the US District Court of Western Tennessee on Wednesday, the civil lawsuit alleges that the brutal beating of Nichols by Memphis police officers in the department’s “hyper-aggressive” specialized unit was sanctioned and tolerated by the MPD, the police chief, and the city.
“The savage beating of Tyre Nichols was a direct and foreseeable product of the unconstitutional policies, practices, customs, and decisions made by the city of Memphis,” attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family, said at a news conference in Memphis on Wednesday.
The lawsuit is asking for $550 million in damages, an amount that Crump said was intentional and symbolic.
“We wanted to send a message to other cities that have similar policies that say it's OK to terrorize people in Black communities and in brown communities,” he said. “When we say $550 million — this is the 50-year anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King [Jr.], and we're in the city where Dr. King was assassinated.”
The Memphis Police Department declined to respond to the lawsuit to BuzzFeed News, saying they “do not comment on pending litigation.” The city of Memphis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Nichols was driving home from work to have dinner with his parents on Jan. 7 when he was stopped by officers in the MPD’s specialized Scorpion unit and brutally beaten. He died three days later from excessive bleeding.
Six of the officers involved — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., Justin Smith, and Preston Hemphill — were fired in late January, as were three members of the Memphis Fire Department who failed to treat Nichols adequately when they responded to the scene. Five of the six former Memphis police officers have been charged with second-degree murder.
But in addition to the criminal charges, Crump said, the civil suit is an effort to “make it financially unsustainable for these police oppression units to unjustly kill Black people in the future.”
“Far from being the result of the actions of five rogue police officers, the events of January 7, 2023 were the culmination of a Department-ordered and Department-tolerated rampage by the unqualified, untrained, and unsupervised SCORPION Unit carrying out an unconstitutional mandate on the streets of Memphis without any fear of retribution or consequence because of an acceptance of and deliberate indifference to unconstitutional conduct that had been fostered since the Unit’s inception,” the lawsuit says.
The complaint alleges that the violence perpetrated by Memphis police officers that night was “set in motion” with the hiring of Cerelyn Davis as police chief in April 2021. Davis had previously overseen the Atlanta Police Department’s antagonistic street crime unit called Red Dog, which was known for rampant police misconduct.
Together with Assistant Police Chief Shawn Jones — who also came from the APD — Davis formed the Scorpion unit in November 2021 to tackle crime in Memphis, specifically targeting Black men like Nichols, according to the complaint.
“In reality, it was an officially authorized gang of inexperienced, untrained, hyper-aggressive police officers turned loose on the Memphis community without any oversight,” the lawsuit says. “They were instructed to strike without warning and, many times, without any valid constitutional basis.”
The lawsuit claims that Davis and the city of Memphis then hired “inexperienced officers and officers with disciplinary issues” for the Scorpion unit and failed to offer specialized training or properly supervise officers in the unit.
Though Davis initially defended the unit, she announced on Jan. 28 that it would disband, three weeks after Nichols’s beating.
The lawsuit also accuses police of misleading and lying to Nichols’s mom, RowVaughn Wells, about her son’s condition. Lt. DeWayne Smith, a supervisor within the Scorpion unit, arrived near the end of the beating and saw the severe injuries on Nichols’s body, the complaint says. He then walked 100 yards to Wells’s house — where Nichols also lived — and allegedly told her that her son was being arrested for driving under the influence despite having no evidence that Nichols was intoxicated.
When Wells repeatedly asked Smith where her son was, Smith told her that paramedics were treating him “in the neighborhood” and that he was going to jail after receiving medical treatment, according to the complaint. Yet Smith allegedly had not seen paramedics render medical aid to Nichols when he was at the scene, and he did not personally order for Smith to be treated before he spoke to Wells.
Smith “withheld” Nichols’s whereabouts from his mother and “took no steps to alert” her about the extent of her son’s injuries, the lawsuit says.
The complaint also points to body and street camera footage that shows law enforcement officers and medical personnel at the scene — all of whom are city employees — ignoring Nichols despite his clear injuries and signs of distress.
“At one point, there were at least 12 City of Memphis employees within feet of Tyre’s body and within range of being able to offer necessary medical aid,” the complaint says. “None of them showed concern or attempted to help Tyre, even though he was battered, bleeding, and barely alive.”