The 139-page complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee, describes the attack on Nichols as a “foreseeable consequence of the unconstitutional policies, practices, practices and willful neglect of the City of Memphis and Chief Davis.”
It compared the attack to the 1955 Emmitt killings and described the officers involved as a “modern-day lynch mob”.
“This has nothing to do with the monetary value of this case, but everything to do with accountability,” Rowan Wells, Nicholas’ mother, said at a Wednesday afternoon news conference. “Those five officers killed my son. Beat him to death. And they should be held accountable along with everyone involved in my son’s murder.
A spokeswoman for the Memphis Police Department said the department does not comment on pending cases.
Nichols’ death sparked widespread outrage, fueled by the brutal nature of her injuries and graphic video footage from police body cameras and surveillance cameras. Five officers directly involved in the beating were quickly fired and charged with second-degree murder and other crimes.
Joanna C. Schwartz, UCLA School of Law professor and author of “Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable.” Schwartz said the lawsuit filed Wednesday stands out from most police misconduct cases because of the media attention the attack has received; Clear and detailed video evidence later released by the city; And immediate condemnation of the actions of the municipal authorities.
“There are a lot of people who have been killed by police and the public’s attention has not been focused on what happened to them, so the case is a public introduction to the case,” Schwartz said. “But this is a case that has already been prosecuted in some way on the international stage, and there is widespread agreement that what the authorities did was wrong — even criminal.
“I would be surprised if the case isn’t resolved relatively quickly.”
Payouts for high-profile police misconduct cases have increased across the country in recent years, studies show. Minneapolis settled a lawsuit filed by George Floyd’s family in 2021 for $27 million, and the city of Louisville settled a lawsuit filed by Briona Taylor’s family in 2020 for $12 million. Smaller settlements often fly under the radar, but cities spend a lot of money. According to a 2022 Washington Post analysis of police misconduct.
The City of Memphis earmarked $1.25 million in its police budget for 2023; Any resolution in the Nichols case would be significantly larger, experts said.
The lawsuit “seeks compensatory, special and punitive damages and costs as defined under federal law in an amount to be determined by a jury,” the attorneys said in a news release.
Video shows Dyer Nichols being brutally beaten by Memphis police
The fired Memphis officers told department officials they pulled Nichols over for reckless driving on Jan. 7, an allegation Davis said was clearly unproven in the following days. After officers attempted to physically restrain Nichols, he fled the stop on foot and was arrested minutes later. Body camera and surveillance footage depicts officers punching, kicking and batting Nichols during the arrest. He died on January 10 at a Memphis hospital.
The officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills and Justin Smith — pleaded not guilty in February to murder charges and other counts. They are due back in court on May 1.
The lawsuit cites a March Washington Post article about the Memphis Police Academy, in which current and former police officers say they have lowered training standards in recent years to address staffing shortages.
“Chief Davis and the City of Memphis significantly lowered hiring standards for inexperienced and problematic officers between 2020 and 2022, following the departure of senior leadership,” the suit alleges.
Officials say the Memphis Police Academy cut corners when rushing to hire
After Nichols’ death, the Justice Department announced an investigation into the Memphis Police Department, and the City Council passed an ordinance — Tire Nicholls Driver Equality Act – It prohibits traffic stops for what the council described as “secondary violations,” such as expired tags or broken taillights. Civil rights activists are pushing for similar legislation in Shelby County, where Memphis is located, that would apply to the sheriff’s office.
“I feel really good about the progress we’ve made so far,” said Amber Sherman, president of the Shelby County Young Democrats and an early supporter of the ordinance. Actually implemented and there is oversight.”
But Sherman said he doesn’t trust Davis, the police chief, to implement the changes in accordance with the law.
The case paints a particularly grim picture of Davis, the city’s leader, as the city faces a record number of murders in 2021.
Davis condemned the behavior of the officers who stopped and beat Nichols, while defending his department as a whole, saying what happened was “not a reflection of the good work that many Memphis police officers do every day.”
The chief also initially supported the special Scorpion unit that employed the officers charged in Nicholls’ death, saying the unit as a whole did a good job, but said the officers involved in the beating “went off the rails that night.”
She quickly changed course and closed the unit. However, the lawsuit filed Wednesday portrayed Nichols’ beating as a tragedy “created and set in motion” by Davis’ hiring. Attorneys for Nichols’ family said the Scorpion unit was following Davis’ own orders while “focusing on black men living in Memphis violates the unspoken Fourth Amendment.”
Davis ordered the officers assigned to the Scorpion to “focus on an all-out strategy to seize property from the citizens of Memphis” and ignore their constitutional rights. The case is also cited from comments made by Davis November 2021 Forum, when she discussed distracted driving. When drivers endanger the lives of others, Davis said at the forum, Memphis police officers are told to impound those vehicles.
“We’ve suggested, ‘Take the car,'” he said. “Even if the case is dropped in court. We saw it and you did.
From George Floyd to Dyer Nichols, please face a bleak reality for police reform
The suit says Scorpion unit officers “routinely used a course of conduct authorized and prescribed by their police chief,” sometimes making traffic stops for minor infractions or no crime at all; barking at people, confusing and scaring them; and using pepper spray, powders, tasers and their fists to attack residents and civilians.
Davis and city leaders were “fully aware” of such incidents, the suit says, and a month before Nichols’ stoppage, local activists at a city council meeting engaged Memphis police officers, including some from the Scorpion unit, in “violent, pretextual traffic stops … resulting in frequent injuries and Many deaths too” dates back to 2013.
Davis was at that meeting, along with at least five members of the Memphis City Council, the lawsuit said, but the Scorpion faction continued unchecked.
Perry Stein contributed to this report.