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Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke Delivers Remarks Announcing Pattern or Practice Investigation of the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department


Memphis, TN
United States

Remarks as Delivered

Good morning. My name is Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. And I am joined by U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz, who serves here in the Western District of Tennessee.

Today, the Justice Department is opening a civil rights investigation into the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department (MPD), to determine whether there is a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution or our federal civil rights law. Based on an extensive review of publicly available information, as well as information provided to us, there are grounds to open this investigation now. Our decision to open this investigation now is not based on a single incident or event, nor is it confined to a specific unit or type of unit within the Memphis Police Department. 

For example:

  • We received multiple reports of officers escalating encounters with community members, resulting in excessive force. There are also indications that officers may use force punitively when faced with behavior they perceive to be insolent. The information we reviewed also shows that officers may use force against people who are already restrained or in custody. At times, the use of force practices result in serious physical injuries.
  • Other information indicates that the Memphis Police Department may be using an approach to street enforcement that can result in violations of federal law, including racially discriminatory stops of Black people for minor violations. Such encounters can be harmful, and they also can violate the law.

Our review indicates that, even in a majority Black city, MPD’s traffic enforcement may focus disproportionately on the Black community. Black drivers receive a significant share of vehicle citations, such as for tinted windows or broken taillights. And the information also suggests that these disparities are not new here in Memphis.

Police departments with inadequate training, supervision and accountability systems struggle to prevent misconduct or address misconduct after it has occurred. We reviewed allegations of deficiencies in these systems within the Memphis Police Department.

Today we are not concluding that these allegations of excessive force; improper searches and stops; and racial disparities are sufficient to show a legal violation without further analysis. But they do warrant a full investigation. The investigation we announce today will focus on three main issues: First, whether the Memphis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of making unlawful stops, searches and arrests. Second, whether the Memphis Police Department engages in a pattern or practice of using excessive force. And third, whether the Memphis Police Department engages in racially discriminatory policing practices with respect to Black residents of this city.

In January of this year, the nation witnessed the tragic death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police. City and police department leaders recognized the need to scrutinize the police department’s practices to prevent such incidents from ever happening again. They requested technical assistance from the Justice Department, and, in March, the Office of Community Oriented Policing Solutions, also known as COPS, opened a review of the police department’s use of force and de-escalation policies, as well as its use of specialized units. The COPS Office will continue that work with the Memphis Police Department to assist the department in making changes and improvements as our pattern and practice investigation gets underway.

But this pattern or practice investigation has a different purpose than the COPS review. This federal civil rights investigation will examine whether the police department has violated the Constitution or federal civil rights laws in a systemic way.

The Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Tennessee will conduct this investigation jointly. I’ll note that this is a civil investigation entirely separate from any federal criminal investigation of MPD officers. We have just briefed Mayor Strickland, Police Chief Davis and Chief Legal Officer Michael Fletcher about the investigation, and we are pleased that they have pledged their cooperation.

Our investigation will be thorough and objective. We will follow the facts and the law wherever they lead. We hope community members throughout Memphis will trust us with to share their stories, their experiences and views about public safety in the city. We’ll also will meet with MPD officers and commanders, and we’ll participate in ride-alongs to hear directly from officers about the challenges that they face.

If there is reasonable cause to believe that there is a pattern or practice of constitutional or statutory violations, we will issue a public report of our conclusions.

We will then aim to work cooperatively with the city and the police department to reach an agreement on remedies. If an agreement can’t be reached, the Justice Department is authorized to bring a civil lawsuit seeking injunctive relief to address the violations.

As we begin this investigation, we recognize the challenges that Memphis and its police department are facing, including one of the country’s highest rates of violent crime. When crime is high, there is an understandable urgency to respond. Often, the pressure to combat crime falls almost exclusively on the police. But the Justice Department recognizes that promoting public safety and preventing violent crime requires the collaboration of a broad array of community and agency partners. This new investigation will seek to identify ways to foster such collaboration and to seek to build on one of the Justice Department’s highest priorities – ensuring that cities and police departments protect communities’ civil rights and keep people safe.

These priorities are reflected in the department’s track record of pattern or practice investigations across the country. In June, we announced our findings that the Minneapolis Police Department had engaged in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal laws. We concluded that the department used excessive force, both deadly and less lethal. We also found that the department unlawfully discriminated against Black and Native American people in its enforcement activities. We found that it retaliated against protestors and journalists in violation of their First Amendment rights and that it discriminated against people with behavioral health disabilities when responding to calls for assistance.

We announced similar findings in March for Louisville. In addition, we have ongoing pattern or practice investigations in Phoenix, Louisiana and other jurisdictions across the country.

We look forward to working together with the city and the police department towards the shared goals of ensuring constitutional and nondiscriminatory policing and promoting greater cooperation between law enforcement officers and the community members that they serve.  

I’ll now turn the floor over to U.S. Attorney Ritz.

Civil Rights
Updated July 27, 2023