The Memphis Police Department has disbanded a special police unit linked to the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year old black man who was pulled over for an alleged traffic violation earlier this month and fatally beaten by five officers.
The decision on Saturday follows the release of harrowing video footage showing the officers punching, kicking and hitting Nichols with a baton in scenes that have sparked a renewed debate over police brutality, racism and the need for reform.
Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis said she had listened to the Nichols family, community leaders and members of the so-called Scorpion police unit — from which the five officers charged over Nichols’ death were deployed — and deactivated it “in the best interest of all”.
The Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighourbourhood unit was established in Memphis in 2021 to target violent offenders in areas of high crime.
“While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonour on the title Scorpion, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department, take proactive steps in the healing process,” said Davis.
She said the department would take every measure possible to rebuild trust that had been negatively affected by the death of Nichols.
Nichols, who was father to a 4-year old son, died three days after being hospitalised following the beating delivered by five police officers, who were also black. The officers were subsequently fired from their jobs and on Thursday indicted by a grand jury for second degree murder, among other charges.
The video footage released on Friday evening showed in graphic detail how a police traffic stop turned into a savage beating that led to the hospitalisation of Nichols and later his death.
Nichols was recorded telling officers “I didn’t do anything” as he was pulled from his car. After being pushed to the ground — where he was seen complying with officers’ requests — Nichols was shown running away.
A separate video captured minutes later showed two police officers holding Nichols from behind while a third punched him several times in the face before a fourth beat him with a baton. Nichols is heard screaming “mom” repeatedly.
The release of the footage sparked concerns among authorities that there could be a repeat of the nationwide riots and violent protests against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.
Floyd, a black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, an incident that was also captured on video.
But the demonstrations held in several US cities on Friday were mostly peaceful with only a handful of arrests and some minor incidents reported by authorities.
This followed a public plea by Nichols’ parents for “peaceful protests”.
“We want peace. We do not want any type of uproar,” said Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, who was flanked by civil rights leaders at a news conference.
Wells said the family were satisfied by the legal process so far.
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