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Cops shared photo of beaten Tyre Nichols and 'bragged' about encounter, reviews show

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

As President Biden hosted the parents of Tyre Nichols at the State of the Union, we've been learning new details about the alleged misconduct of the five Memphis police officers accused of killing Nichols. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste has been reviewing some newly released documents. And, Martin, the terrible videos of officers beating Nichols last month have been public for a few weeks now. What new information are we learning?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, Juana, what we have now are more details about the conduct charges that these officers faced from their supervisors. This is an administrative process that happened in mid-January. This is basically the evidence that the bosses relied on to fire them and also to get them decertified, which is what happens to police when they lose their right to work as police officers in that state.

SUMMERS: So can we assume that the worst allegation against them is murder?

KASTE: No, not in this context. That's going to be left up to the criminal justice system where these officers are facing second-degree murder charges. This process focused on their professional conduct or lack thereof. It found that they broke department rules by using unreasonable and excessive force against Nichols, that they failed in their duty to intervene with other officers in this excessive force and to report that accurately. Ultimately, these documents paint a picture of officers with a very unprofessional attitude.

SUMMERS: Martin, what do you mean by that?

KASTE: Well, their apparent disdain for Nichols. One detail that's already got some attention from these documents is that right after this beating, one of the officers, Demetrius Haley, is accused of taking cellphone photos of Nichols as he slumped against the police car, and then texts of one of those photos to other people, including non-police officers. This review also focuses on several officers for laughing and bragging about the encounter right after it happened.

SUMMERS: Do these documents say anything about how these officers behaved, their conduct after the encounter happened?

KASTE: Well, in terms of professional conduct, that's where things get even worse. In several cases, the department accuses the officers of deceit. For example, one officer claimed that Nichols tried to grab his gun. Another officer says he heard his fellow officer saying that he was trying to grab his gun. But investigators say that wasn't corroborated by the body camera video. Investigators also say that the officers did not follow the rules on how to use those body cameras. In a couple of cases, they say that the officers took their cameras off, that one of them put his camera on a car's trunk, another one put his camera inside a car.

SUMMERS: OK, and how serious of a breach of the rules is that, not using a body camera properly?

KASTE: Well, in a case like this, it can be crucial. One of the big questions that we've been asking about this case is how it started. Why did they pull Nichols over? And apparently, the first officer to put hands on him, Demetrius Haley, he's the one we've seen aggressively pulling Nichols out of his car, he did not have his camera rolling at all at that point. So we don't see how things started.

SUMMERS: OK. And I understand this investigation was not a criminal trial, which may still be coming. But did the officers involved have a chance to defend themselves?

KASTE: They had a chance, but most refrained from making official statements based on legal advice. The Memphis Police Association went on the record during the proceedings complaining about a lack of due process, saying that the officers didn't get a chance to see all the evidence against them, including some video. One officer, Justin Smith, did submit a written statement in which he says that Nichols was, quote, "actively resisting" and that he was just there to assist in the arrest and followed the training he'd gotten from the police department. I think as the criminal prosecutions get going here, what we're going to see is more sort of a fine point being made about which officer did what and when.

SUMMERS: NPR's Martin Kaste, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.