MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis could pay tens of millions of dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit for Tyre Nichols and the mayor said he doesn’t know where the money will come from.
Other cities have settled recent high-profile police death lawsuits as much as $27 million in Minneapolis in the case of George Floyd and $12 million in the death of Breonna Taylor.
Attorney Ben Crump negotiated the settlements in both the Floyd and Taylor cases. He also represents the family of Tyre Nichols.
“It sends a message that the unjust taking of Black life will no longer be written off as trivial,” Crump said after the historic settlement in Minneapolis.
A multi-million dollar lawsuit will be challenging for Memphis, whose budget is already tight at about $750 million. The Police Department gets 38 percent of the overall budget, with $1.25 million of the police budget earmarked for lawsuits.
“It’s not automatic the city’s going to have to pay any money. But we are going to have to defend legal claims,” Mayor Jim Strickland said.
We asked Strickland where the rest of the money will come from if a lawsuit gets settled at more than $1.25 million.
“I do not know,” he said.
To be clear, Strickland said he can’t comment on pending litigation. The Crump legal team has not responded to WREG’s inquiries regarding the potential filing of a lawsuit.
Taxpayers could pay for other lawsuits stemming from the new revelations about Memphis police practices; Crump also now represents Cornell McKinney who came in contact with the now-defunct SCORPION unit. Another man, Monterrious Harris, has filed a $5 million lawsuit related to his encounter with the same officers now charged in Nichols’ death.
“I imagine any civil lawsuit seeking damages brought by the family of Tyre Nichols will be settled quickly and for a substantial amount of money,” said Joanna Schwartz, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and author of the upcoming book ‘Shielded: How the Police Became Untouchable.’
Any forthcoming Nichols settlement will likely be unique because Memphis legal policy makes it tough for people to hold police accountable, Schwartz said.
She says the city does not indemnify officers, meaning it won’t back an officer if they get sued.
“Officers don’t pay because they are without the kinds of assets that a plaintiff and their lawyer in these cases would consider a deep enough pocket to bring a case against,” Schwartz said.
She also said lawsuits don’t promote long-term change in police behavior.
“There have been studies done that show the threat of being sued is not among the top ten thoughts entering the minds of most officers,” Schwartz said.
Instead, she said reform and the involvement of the Department of Justice do the most to create change.
Nichols’ mother RowVaughn Wells has echoed Crump’s calls for police reform.
“No mother should go through what I’m going through right now,” Wells said.
Part of Louisville’s settlement with Breonna Taylor’s mother included changes in the way they conduct search warrants and respond to emergency calls.
Schwartz predicted a settlement in the Nichols case could also include legal reforms.
“It seems like there’s been a lot of attention toward these so-called elite units. I am guessing that in near future there will be a re-thinking of those units,” Schwartz said.
The Department of Justice has also announced a federal civil rights investigation into the Nichols case.