Former Memphis police officer Desmond Mills Jr. on Thursday pleaded guilty to federal and state charges in the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, a change in his initial plea.
Mills is one of five former officers, along with Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith, who were charged with second degree murder after Nichols suffered a beating amid what allegedly began as a traffic stop on January 7 and died in a hospital three days later.
Mills entered his plea during a hearing at the Memphis federal courthouse as part of a larger agreement to also settle charges in Tennessee state court.
The charges to which Mills pleaded guilty included excessive force and obstruction of justice. He also agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, who are recommending to the judge who’ll decide his punishment that he receive a 15-year sentence.
Mills remains free on bail ahead of his May 22 sentencing hearing.
He and the other four former officers who’ve been charged in Nichols’ death were members of Memphis’ now-disbanded Scorpion Unit, which had been formed by Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis in 2021 in response to quickly-rising homicide numbers.
The unit was meant to deploy about 40 officers as a strike team in some of the most volatile corners of the city. However, Memphis residents soon complained of heavy-handed tactics, including Scorpion team officers employing punitive policing in response to relatively minor offenses.
Following Nichols’ death, community leaders began a process of assessing how a unit that was supposed to ease the violence in Memphis had instead inflicted an attack that Chief Davis herself called “heinous” and “inhumane.”
Davis, meanwhile, said the Scorpion officers’ actions showed a larger problem with police culture in Memphis, adding that it may be time to rethink the leadership within the department.
The Memphis Police Department has also fallen under federal scrutiny. About a month after Nichols’ death, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services took part in a review of the Memphis P.D.
In July, the DOJ opened a civil rights investigation into the Memphis P.D., after its preliminary review drew “multiple reports of officers escalating encounters with community members resulting in excessive force,” according to Kristen Clarke, the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, who added that there were indications of officers using force “punitively when faced with behavior they perceive as insolent.”
Officials added that the preliminary review had revealed other instances similar to the encounter with Nichols where officers used force to the point where it resulted in “serious physical injuries,” Clarke said.