U.S. Justice Department opens probe of the city of Memphis and its police department

The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into the city of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department (MPD) to determine whether there is a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or our federal civil rights laws, said Kirsten Clarke, Assistant U.S. Attorney for Civil Rights.

“We received multiple reports of officers escalating encounters with community members, resulting in excessive force,” Clark said. “There are also indications that officers may use force punitively when faced with behavior they perceive to be insolent.” 

“The information we reviewed also shows that officers may use force against people who are already restrained or in custody. At times, the use of force practices results in serious physical injuries,” Clark said further.

Other information indicates that the Memphis Police Department may be using an approach to street enforcement that can result in violations of federal law, including racially discriminatory stops of Black people for minor violations. Such encounters can be harmful, and they also can violate the law.”

“Our review indicates that, even in a majority Black city, MPD’s traffic enforcement may focus disproportionately on the Black community.” 

Black drivers receive a significant share of vehicle citations, such as driving vehicles with tinted windows or broken taillights. And the information also suggests that these disparities are not new in Memphis.

The Justice Department investigation follows the murder of Tyre Johnson by five Black Memphis police officers.

Johnson, 29, was driving home when he was stopped for allegedly speeding and was kicked and beaten. He died calling for his mother in a local hospital three days later. 

The cops were members of the SCORPIO police unit, founded by Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ†Davis, a Black woman.

She has been blamed for creating the SCORPIO unit, but after Johnson’s murder, she disbanded the unit. The unit was originally charged with fighting violent crime. It was confounding that members of the unit engaged in a traffic stop and one that became inexplicably violent and resulted in Tyre Johnson’s death.

The Justice Department has investigated other police departments, including the Minneapolis Police Department following the 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for more than nine minutes after Floyd had been handcuffed and said he couldn’t breathe.