(This Jan. 30 story has been corrected to specify that Whitaker was a passenger in the fire department vehicle, not the driver, in paragraphs 1 and 4)
By Alyssa Pointer
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Reuters) – Three members of the Memphis Fire Department who responded to the fatal police confrontation with Tyre Nichols were dismissed on Monday after investigators found he was beaten and left handcuffed on the ground without medical attention for nearly 15 minutes.
According to a fire department statement, emergency medical technicians Robert Long and JaMichael Sandridge failed to assess Nichols’ condition when they arrived, while fire Lieutenant Michelle Whitaker, who rode with them to the scene, remained in the vehicle with the driver.
An internal review of their conduct found that all three fire department employees “violated numerous (fire department) policies and protocols,” the agency said in a statement issued by Fire Chief Gina Sweat.
The terminations came as the Memphis Police Department disclosed that seven of its officers had been relieved of duty for their roles in the confrontation that led to the Jan. 10 death of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man. That tally included five officers who were dismissed from the force and charged last week with murder.
The five officers charged in the case are Black. Lawyers for Nichols’ family have cast the beating as the latest instance of an African American brutalized as a result of racially biased policing practices that profile people of color – even when the officers involved are non-white.
A sixth officer – identified as Preston Hemphill – was suspended with pay pending a hearing, and a seventh officer who was not immediately identified was also relieved of duty without pay, the police department said. No criminal charges have been filed against Hemphill, 26, who joined the force in 2018, or against the seventh, unnamed officer.
A police department spokesperson declined to comment on why those suspensions were not announced earlier.
Police Chief Cerelyn Davis has said an unspecified number of officers besides the five initially implicated remained under investigation for policy infractions stemming from the arrest of Nichols during a Jan. 7 traffic stop.
The five officers dismissed on Jan. 20 – Justin Smith, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III, Demetrius Haley and Tadarrius Bean – were charged Thursday with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and oppression in the fatal beating of Nichols.
Hemphill, who is white, wore the body-camera that captured the first of four videos released by authorities on Friday of the traffic stop and violent confrontation that followed, according to the officer’s attorney, Lee Gerald.
In the video, it is Hemphill who appears to fire a stun gun at Nichols after Nichols is dragged from his car, forced to the ground and doused with pepper spray before he breaks free and runs away with the officers chasing him.
Police caught up to Nichols a short distance away, where additional video clips show officers repeatedly pummeling him with punches, kicks and baton blows before Nichols is finally handcuffed and propped up against the side of a police vehicle. He died three days later while hospitalized from his injuries.
According to a fire department timeline of its response to an incident originally dispatched as “a person pepper sprayed,” Long and Sandridge “failed to conduct an adequate patient assessment” when they reached Nichols at 8:41 p.m., minutes after the beating.
Instead, after an initial “interaction” with Nichols, the two EMTs called for an ambulance team, who arrived on the scene at 8:55 p.m. and “initiated patient care,” the fire department said in its statement. Nichols was transported to a hospital a short time later.
The “actions or inactions” of Long, Sandridge and Whitaker “on the scene that night to not meet the expectations of the Memphis Fire Department,” Sweat said.
In addition to the seven police officers and three fire department personnel implicated in the Nichols encounter, two Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies have also been relieved of duty pending an internal review, Sheriff Floyd Bonner said last Friday, after the video was released.
The Shelby County district attorney’s investigation is examining the roles played by all individuals involved in the Nichols traffic stop and its immediate aftermath, including Hemphill Memphis Fire Department personnel and “those responsible for documenting the incident,” the office said in a statement.
The specialized Scorpion police unit that included the five Memphis officers charged with murder in the case was disbanded on Saturday by the city. It was not immediately clear whether the sixth and seventh officers under investigation belonged to that unit.
Davis has said investigators have not substantiate Nichols was driving recklessly when he was pulled over, as some of the officers involved asserted at the time.
(Reporting by Alyssa Pointer in Memphis, Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Tyler Clifford and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Rosalba O’Brien and Lincoln Feast.)