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A police officer in the Tyre Nichols case retired with benefits. That's not unusual

The Memphis police supervisor on scene when Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by officers retired with his benefits the day before a hearing to fire him, according to newly released documents. Here in this image from video released and partially redacted by the city of Memphis, Tenn., Tyre Nichols lies on the ground during a brutal attack by Memphis Police officers, Jan. 7, 2023, in Memphis.
AP
The Memphis police supervisor on scene when Tyre Nichols was beaten to death by officers retired with his benefits the day before a hearing to fire him, according to newly released documents. Here in this image from video released and partially redacted by the city of Memphis, Tenn., Tyre Nichols lies on the ground during a brutal attack by Memphis Police officers, Jan. 7, 2023, in Memphis.

A lieutenant in the Memphis Police Department who was on the scene when officers beat Tyre Nichols to death was able to retire with full benefits, less than a day before he was expected to be fired, according to police documents.

Former Lt. Dewayne Smith has been identified as the officer who retired before an administrative hearing into his involvement in the death of Nichols, The Daily Memphian reported last Friday.

Smith, a 25-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, served as a supervisor on the now-deactivated SCORPION unit — the specialized police unit responsible for conducting the traffic stop that ultimately led to Nichols' death.

In documents obtained by The Daily Memphian, records show that Smith retired before an official administrative hearing could be held to discuss the incident.

However, the fact that Smith was able to retire early and keep his full benefits before going through an investigation hearing is precedented. In fact, it's a move that's far too common among law enforcement agencies across the country, experts say.

Documents show Smith had failed in several tasks at the scene

Smith was notified of the hearing on Feb. 22, and he submitted his notice of retirement on March 1, according to The Daily Memphian. The documents show that Smith had been charged with neglect of duty, as well as making unauthorized public statements and violating the department's policy on its use of body cameras.

Smith also told officers to clear the scene before an investigative bureau could be notified. This happened shortly after he failed to "take command of the scene" or give officers instructions to preserve evidence and to provide details of Nichols' beating, according to the documents.

Additionally, the documents show that Smith saw the injuries Nichols received from the five officers who beat him, but did not call for medical assistance nor did he ask questions about the use of force by the five officers.

Once Nichols shouted, "I can't breathe," the documents quote Smith, who said, "You done took something, mane."

So far, Smith has not been criminally charged in connection to Nichols' death.

NPR reached out to the Memphis Police Association for a request to comment but did not immediately hear back.

Ben Crump, one of the family's attorneys, said in a statement to NPR that the Nichols family and their legal team are "deeply disturbed" that the Memphis Police Department "allowed and accepted" Smith's retirement.

"We call for Memphis police and officials to do everything in their power to hold Lt. Smith and all of those involved fully accountable and not allow Lt. Smith to cowardly sidestep the consequences of his actions," Crump said in his statement.

"His cowardice in resigning and not facing his own disciplinary board to defend himself is not an end-around on accountability or reckoning," he added.

A move like Smith's is "often standard practice" in law enforcement

The former Memphis police officers accused of murder in the death of Tyre Nichols appear with their attorneys at an indictment hearing at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center on Feb. 17, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. The former police officers pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges in the violent arrest and death of Nichols.
Brandon Dill / AP
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AP
The former Memphis police officers accused of murder in the death of Tyre Nichols appear with their attorneys at an indictment hearing at the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center on Feb. 17, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn. The former police officers pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder and other charges in the violent arrest and death of Nichols.

The administrative hearing for Smith was held earlier this month in his absence, as officials determined that he should have been fired for his involvement in Nichols' death, CNN reports.

In his retirement letter obtained by The Daily Memphian, Smith said his retirement from the department "was not an easy decision," as he realized "that the time has come to move on."

Members of the public might be disturbed by the fact Smith was allowed to retire, said RaShall Brackney, Distinguished Visiting Professor of Practice at George Mason University.

"But for those of us who have worked in the criminal legal system, this is often standard practice," she said in an interview with NPR.

Brackney, who has years of experience in law enforcement — as the former police chief for Charlottesville, Va. and decades of serving in the Pittsburgh Police Department — told NPR that police departments often allow their officers to resign or retire before they are disciplined.

"The organizations have to be braver — the police institutions oftentimes think, 'OK, they resigned, they retired. We don't have to fight this in court. We don't have to go to battle over this, the problem is done; they're no longer an employee and they can no longer injure the public or the reputation of the agency,'" Brackney said.

"The problem with that is it lacks courage and it says that we will allow you to off-ramp so that we don't have to do what is right," she added.

She said that, although it's been an ongoing problem for as long as she can remember, there are ways to address the issue so that an officer may or may not be able to receive full benefits or go to another department.

Addressing legal principles like qualified immunity — the ability to protect government officials, including police officers, when they are sued — could ultimately help change the status quo, for example. However, one of the latest attempts to do so on a federal level, theGeorge Floyd Justice in Policing Act, was unable to clear the Senate after being passed by the House in the past two sessions of Congress.

"As long as we keep the system as in its current state, [officers] are going to take the position that allows them to be the most successful," Brackney said.

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.
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