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Tyre Nichols' family sues the Memphis police force, the officers and the city

A photo of Tyre Nichols is positioned prior to a press conference on Jan. 27 in Memphis, Tenn. Attorneys representing Nichols' family announced plans to file a civil lawsuit against the city of Memphis, Memphis Police Department, and individual officers for the 29-year-old's January death.
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A photo of Tyre Nichols is positioned prior to a press conference on Jan. 27 in Memphis, Tenn. Attorneys representing Nichols' family announced plans to file a civil lawsuit against the city of Memphis, Memphis Police Department, and individual officers for the 29-year-old's January death.

Updated April 19, 2023 at 2:45 PM ET

The family of Tyre Nichols has filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Memphis, its police department and the individual officers involved in the January beating death of Nichols.

The 139-page lawsuit obtained by NPR describes the fatal beating as a "foreseeable product of the unconstitutional policies, practices, customs and deliberate indifference of the City of Memphis" and its police chief, Cerelyn "C.J." Davis.

The lawsuit also compares Nichols' beating by Memphis police to the 1955 killing of Emmett Till — saying that like Till, the 29-year-old suffered a beating "endured at hands of a modern-day lynch mob."

"Unlike Till, this lynching was carried out by those adorned in department sweatshirts and vests and their actions were sanctioned — expressly and implicitly — by the City of Memphis," the lawsuit says.

The suit does not mention a specific dollar amount being sought by the Nichols family in damages. However, Ben Crump, one of the family's attorneys, said during a news conference Wednesday that the family is seeking $550 million in damages.

"This landmark lawsuit is not only to get the justice for Tyre Nichols in the civil courts, but it is also a message that is being sent to cities all across America who have these police oppression units that have been given the license by city leaders to go and terrorize Black and brown communities," Crump said.

The lawsuit also says that RowVaughn Wells, Nichols' mother, suffered severe emotional distress due to the "negligent acts and omissions" by Memphis police after her son's beating.

According to the suit, officers made "false representations" to her regarding Nichols' physical condition.

"This has nothing to do with the monetary value of this lawsuit, but everything that has to do with accountability," Wells said during the news conference.

"Those five police officers murdered my son. They beat him to death. And they need to be held accountable along with everyone else that has something to do with my son's murder," she added.

The City of Memphis declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Nichols, 29, died on Jan. 10, three days after he was stopped by Memphis police for what they called reckless driving. According to initial police reports, officers said the 29-year-old fled the scene but eventually was taken into custody after two "confrontations" with officers.

Nichols had complained of shortness of breath following his arrest and was taken to the hospital in critical condition.

Five former Memphis police officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — were terminated by the department on Jan. 20. The five officers belonged to a team known as the SCORPION unit, which was deactivated shortly after Nichols' death.

The five former officers each face several charges, including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression. All five officers have pleaded not guilty.

Like Nichols, all of the dismissed officers facing charges are Black.

News of the family's civil lawsuit filing comes after the city of Memphis announced last month it had completed its investigation into Nichols' beating death.

In a city council meeting on March 7, the city's chief legal officer, Jennifer Sink, said the city's investigation revealed that a total of 13 officers from the Memphis Police Department underwent an administrative investigation for their involvement in Nichols' death.

Of those, seven were fired, three were suspended and two had internal charges dropped, Sink said.

A police lieutenant, later identified as Dewayne Smith, was able to retire with full benefits before an administrative hearing regarding his involvement could be conducted.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jonathan Franklin
Jonathan Franklin is a digital reporter on the News desk covering general assignment and breaking national news.