Steve Mulroy had been the Shelby county district attorney for just over 100 days when five Memphis police officers beat and killed Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man.
As the case began to get more and more attention, Mulroy, a Democrat, did something surprising. In high-profile police killings, prosecutors and police are slow to release video while they investigate. Criminal charges against the police officers, if they’re filed at all, come much later.
But Mulroy moved quickly to criminally charge the officers, indicting the five involved in Nichols’ death less than three weeks after the murder. He and the city released body-camera and surveillance footage days later. It was a series of decisions, Mulroy believes, that contributed to why protests after the video was released remained peaceful.
“We have never seen swift justice like this,” Ben Crump, the civil rights attorney representing Nichols’ family, said after the video was released. “This is the blueprint going forward for any time any officers, whether they be Black or white, will be held accountable.”
The election of Mulroy, a former law professor and Justice Department lawyer, was the result of a growing push for criminal justice reform in Memphis. In August, he quietly won the biggest prosecutor race last year, ousting Amy Weirich, a Republican, who failed to bring charges in several police killings and whose office had been accused of repeated misconduct.
Mulroy has continued to examine the case, saying his office will review all prior cases the five officers were involved in – and other officers involved in Nichols case.
“I don’t think it was just five out-of-control cops. I think there was a broader culture problem that we need to address with police reform. You know, exactly how far it goes, I don’t know. But it’s certainly worth looking into,” Mulroy said.
The Guardian spoke with Mulroy about his handling of the Tyre Nichols case and criminal justice reform in Memphis. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Can you walk me through your reaction when you first saw the video of Tyre Nichols’ death and your decision to release the video so quickly?
When I first saw the video, my main reaction was that of real sympathy for the family of Tyre Nichols. I imagined what it would be like when they watched this video and inevitably I knew they would. And my heart went out for them.
The public outrage, even before the video, was pretty insistent and ever growing. And I knew that the demands for the release of the video were only gonna grow every day. And trust in the fairness in the system was going to get lower every day the video wasn’t released.
Early on the city wanted to defer to me about when to release the video to make sure that it didn’t compromise the investigation. And so, because I saw a great public interest in getting that video out there as soon as possible, I wanted to expedite the investigation to get key witness interviews done.
But at a certain point we realized that not only could we get key witness interviews done, but we actually would be in a position where we could actually make decisions on charging. Then I realized that if we could at all get the charges announced prior to the release of the video, that would go a long way towards tamping down any potential violent public response. And that’s why we decided to do it that way.
And that strategy seems to have worked. Do you agree?
I do agree. I think the fact that there were no violent protests in Memphis, or anywhere else around the country where there were protests, first of all, makes me proud of my city. But second of all, I think the two main reasons why that occurred was a) the extraordinary grace that Mrs Wells [Nichols’ mother] showed in her public calls for non-violent protest. And b) the fact that by the time the public saw the video, they knew that action had already been taken. And do you agree that this is the blueprint for how these highly charged cases should be handled moving forward?
I do and I hope that they will.
Stepping back, what do you think the Tyre Nichols case tells us about what has and hasn’t changed about how police interact with the people that they’re meant to protect?
I think it suggests to us that while the George Floyd tragedy really raised the consciousness nationwide about the need for police reform, nonetheless, Tyre Nichols shows us that there’s still a lot more to do. And that there’s still a culture of hyper-aggressiveness that we need to address and there’s still a real issue about the experience that young black males have in police interactions versus the rest of us.
Can you tell me about your decision to revisit all of the cases of the officers involved in Tyre Nichols’ death?
The video certainly suggests that this may not be the first time that officers acted this way. And the discrepancy between the statements they made on the video about what had happened and what they clearly saw. And statements made later on by the officers and what we now know to have happened raise issues about their honesty in this case.
And if there’s issues about their honesty in this case, then I think it would be prudent to go back and look at other cases they had to see if there were issues of either dishonesty or excessive force or even just violations of search and seizure protocols. Any of which might cause us to rethink what was a fair disposition in those cases.
We know there’s at least 75 such cases we have to look at. And since we’re adding Officer Hemphill – the person who was at the first encounter, but not the second encounter, we’re adding him to the list of cases that we’re gonna be reviewing – it’ll probably be significantly north of 75. But somewhere in that range. And it could easily take months.
Could convictions be reversed?
That could be one outcome. It could be we find there’s no reason to change the disposition of the case. But we could also find there is reason to change the disposition of the case, which could mean overturning a conviction.
I wanted to ask you about the Scorpion unit more broadly. First, did something go wrong with this unit? And if so, what happened? How did this happen?
It sounds like something did go wrong with this unit. I’m glad to hear that the city decided to disband it. This is all widely reported in the media. There have been other allegations of officers in the Scorpion unit being over aggressive, using excessive force. Of course that’s of a piece with similar reports we’ve gotten from around the country. Where you have these specialized units…and they tend to end up having an over aggressive attitude. I think it’s an issue nationally, not just in Memphis.
And you’ve said that you’re not planning on reviewing the cases of the unit more broadly, taking a look at all the cases the scorpion unit has been involved in.
That’s true. If there are individual cases where defense attorneys or anybody else have a reason why the case is suspect – not just somebody in the Scorpion unit had some way been involved in the case, but some specific reason why this case might be suspect – then we have a look at every case that is brought to us in that manner. But we’re gonna make sure that we proactively, even without a request, go back and look at every case where those six officers had a significant role.
I want to draw a distinction here. I don’t think it’s necessarily the case that we need to give up on hotspot policing. Or data-driven policing. I think the evidence around the country shows that done right, it can be effective. You know, when crime is sufficiently high here in Shelby county or any urban areas around the country, that we don’t want to give up on any method that will be good at suppressing crime.
But that’s a different question from these specialized units. Like these elite, hyperaggressive units. I think it is a different question from whether we do data-driven hotspot, geographically tied deployment of regular police forces.
There are additional city employees that have come under investigation after the initial five officers were charged. Can you explain the delay?
With respect to all the others – both MPD and Memphis fire department – there’s an active investigation underway. We haven’t decided to charge or not charge. We’re still looking at everything.
The reason why the timeframe is different is that it’s just easier to come to a decision on charges for the five officers who were present at the scene of the beating and were actually physically involved, directly, in the beating that led to the death of Tyre Nichols. I think when you start talking about people who never made [it to] that scene. Or who only showed up at the scene afterwards. Then the analysis I think is less clear cut. It doesn’t mean that charges wouldn’t ultimately be brought. But I think it takes a little more care and investigation.
I wanted to ask you more broadly. You were elected last year, you’re still relatively new in office. It probably doesn’t feel that way. You came into office as a reformer. Is this a testament to what can happen when a reformer is elected? Do you think this case would have gone differently under your predecessor?
I think the case would have gone very differently under my predecessor. I don’t have much doubt about that. I do think that the case, as tragic as this is, this case can show us an example of how to respond to these officer-involved shooting cases from a reform perspective.
At the end of the day, as many people have reminded me, since the Tyre Nichols case has become prominent, elections have consequences.
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