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Early Start with John Berman and Zoraida Sambolin

Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Visit Israel and the West Bank Amid a Wave of Deadly Violence; Memphis Police Shuts Down the Special Police Unit Tied to the Beating to Death of Tyre Nichols; Classes Resume at a Virginia Elementary School for the First Time Since a First Grader Shot His Teacher. Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired January 30, 2023 - 05:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, ANCHOR, EARLY START: Right now on EARLY START, the Secretary of State about to visit Israel and the West Bank amid a wave of deadly violence. Plus, Memphis police shutting down the special police unit tied to the beating death of Tyre Nichols. And just hours from now, classes resume at a Virginia Elementary School for the first time since a first grader shot his teacher.

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world, I'm Christine Romans this Monday morning, Secretary of State, Antony Blinken in Egypt this morning, the first leg of his three-day tour of the Middle East. His visit coming at a time when violence is flaring between Israelis and Palestinians.

Iran and Ukraine also high on the agenda as Blinken prepares to leave Cairo this hour for Israel where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new right-wing government is causing turbulence at home and abroad. Nic Robertson has the latest for us from Jerusalem. Nic, what is Blinken hoping to accomplish on this visit?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMATIC EDITOR: I think the best hope here of people on both sides, Palestinians and Israelis, is that he can lower the tensions at the moment. How does he do that? Well, he's very likely to appeal to Prime Minister Netanyahu to reconsider some of his cabinet's decisions over the weekend on how to respond and react to that deadly shooting outside a synagogue on Friday where seven Israelis were killed.

One of their proposals that's being considered by the government is to throttle back, even remove the rights of Palestinians' family members of attackers. That is something that could potentially further inflame the situation. The prime minister has also said that he's considering what he describes as strengthening the settlements.

And we know that within his far-right coalition, there's heavy pressure on him to expand settlements and at a time of increased, intense security, both of these measures become sort of more open to the prime minister. So, if the Secretary of State can influence him to dial back on that, that may help lower tensions. But also on the Palestinian side, when he meets the Palestinian

Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, he's likely to have a similar message of improve the background situation by re-establishing security coordination with Israel. This affects both Palestinians and Israelis.

But the reality is, the Palestinian Authority doesn't have the control of the streets at the moment, so expectations are low, and partly because of the pressure within the governing coalition of Israel on the prime minister to keep good on his commitments to his right-wing partners and partly because the situation in the West Bank is incredibly tense.

So, the dialing back at the moment of tensions and a de-escalation and a pause for breath, perhaps, the best he could hope for, but not forgetting this has been a very deadly month for Palestinians and Israelis, and indeed, the past year, one of the deadliest for both really going back more than a decade or so.

ROMANS: All right, Nic Robertson following all of it for us, thanks, Nic. To Memphis now, the police unit linked to the beating death of Tyre Nichols has been permanently disbanded by the Memphis Police Department. City Council members telling CNN, this is not the first time they've heard about problems with the controversial Scorpion Street Crime Division.


FRANK COLVETT, MEMPHIS CITY COUNCIL: I have not received complaints, but my office -- me personally. But my office has and the council has, so -- but the Scorpion Unit, I think the smart move and the mayor is correct in shutting it down. These kinds of actions clearly are not representative of the Memphis Police Department.


ROMANS: The five officers who were fired and charged with murder in Nichols' death were all members of the Scorpion Unit. Prosecutors insist there could be more charges coming.


STEVEN MULROY, DISTRICT ATTORNEY, SHELBY COUNTY TENNESSEE: We charged them extraordinarily quickly. Less than three weeks from the incident itself to the time that we brought indictments, and that's really unprecedented. So we're going to need time to allow the investigation to go forward and further consideration of charges.

But I will say this, nothing we did last Thursday regarding the indictments precludes us from bringing other charges later.


ROMANS: Memphis Police say the remaining members of the Scorpion Unit agree with the decision to disband it.


Richneck Elementary School in Newport News, Virginia, re-opens this morning more than three weeks after a first grader brought a gun to class and shot his teacher in the chest. New protocols are in place and the school principal has been re-assigned. Details now from CNN's Polo Sandoval.


POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): A spokesperson for the school system in Newport News, Virginia, confirms for CNN that the principal at Richneck Elementary School, which is where that shooting took place just over three weeks ago, will be re-assigned to another position within the school district.

She's now the third school system employee to be removed from or to step down from their post since January 6th when a sixth grader on campus shot and wounded his teacher. On Wednesday, you'll recall, a school board actually voted to cut ties with the superintendent of the entire school system. There's also the assistant principal at Richneck Elementary that resigned on their own.

The attorney representing the injured teacher maintaining that school administrators were warned three times, the day of the shooting, that the child was armed with a firearm, but the attorney maintaining that they failed to act. She even plans to file a lawsuit against the school system. Now, a school district not commenting because of the ongoing investigation.

But ahead of the first day of classes since that shooting, parents and students and staff still in a tough situation as many of them have to decide whether or not to return to school on Monday. Michelle Brown(ph) is one of the parents who we had an opportunity to speak to her son, a third grader on that campus at Richneck.

She says she needs to feel reassured that those who she believes to be responsible are being held accountable, and also that school officials are doing everything they can to keep her son safe, to keep this from happening again. Now, the school responding, trying to reassure parents, saying that they will be installing metal detectors at all of their elementary schools.

Also considering requiring only transparent backpacks on campus. But some parents saying that is still too little, too late. They want a restructuring of the school system and the administrators in general, and for them to take a hard look at the procedures and the policies in place. Polo Sandoval, CNN, New York.


ROMANS: All right, President Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy will meet face-to-face Wednesday in a debt-ceiling showdown. The President has insisted he will not offer any concessions or negotiate on raising the debt-ceiling, but McCarthy still believes they can find middle ground.


REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R-CA): We're going to meet this Wednesday. And I know the president said he didn't want to have any discussions, but I think it's very important that our whole government is designed to find compromise. So I want to find a reasonable and a responsible way that we can lift the debt-ceiling, but take control of this runaway spending.


ROMANS: We are told President Biden plans to remind McCarthy of his constitutional obligation to prevent a national default. Right, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy renewing his pleas for more firepower as his country braces for another Russian offensive. The near-constant attacks on the eastern frontlines of the Donetsk region intensifying in recent days.


VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY, PRESIDENT, UKRAINE (through translator): Russia hopes to drag out the war and exhaust our forces, so we have to make time our weapon, we have to accelerate developments, we have to speed up the supply and launch of new, necessary military options for Ukraine.


ROMANS: CNN's Frederik Pleitgen has more from Ukraine.


FREDERIK PLEITGEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): As the Winter weather continues here in Ukraine's east, the frontline in the east of the country certainly is heating up. We witnessed a big artillery battle near the town of Kreminna, which is actually held by the Russians for which the Ukrainians have been wanting to take back.

It's a strategic location, and the Ukrainians say that for a long time, they were able to make advances there, but now, those advances have been stopped, and the Russians are starting a counteroffensive because they've beefed up their forces in that area. After, of course, Russia late last year mobilized hundreds of thousands of people for the war in Ukraine.

Very similar situation in the town of Bakhmut where the Russians have been making gains over the past couple of weeks, really over the past couple of months, and now, it really seems those gains are getting accelerated. They usually come, thanks to the troops of the Wagner private military company, a mercenary outfit that are making gains despite suffering massive losses.

The Ukrainians are saying that by and large, they can beat back some of those offensives, but they do also acknowledge that they are losing some ground. Further south in the town of Vuhledar, the Ukrainians also say that the Russians have massively beefed up their forces there, and are hitting those towns with some seriously heavy firepower.

There was one assault the Ukrainians say that they caught on camera of Russian forces trying to assault Vuhledar and being beaten back very badly by Ukrainian artillery, with some of the Russian troops fleeing, and one even having to crawl away from the battlefield there. All this as the Ukrainian leadership say they really need longer-range missiles from the United States.

They say that the Russians have moved a lot of their supply and logistics further away from the frontline, and the Ukrainians simply need longer distance weapons to hit those supply lines. Fred Pleitgen, CNN, Kramatorsk, Ukraine.



ROMANS: All right, next, the manhunt for a suspect to may be using dating apps to find his victims? Plus, a Russian team facing prison for an Instagram post questioning the invasion of Ukraine. And Super Bowl LVII is set and not without a little controversy.


ROMANS: As protesters across the country call for police reforms, the nation trying to come to grips with the beating that took the life of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. CNN's Boris Sanchez walks us through the police body-cam video on the night of January 7th, and we want to warn you this video contains graphic violence and profanity.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (INAUDIBLE) you get your ass, roll the fuck off! Get the fuck out of the car. Get your fucking ass out of the fucking car.


BORIS SANCHEZ, CNN ANCHOR & CORRESPONDENT: Police body-camera footage shows that officers first encountered Tyre Nichols at this intersection in Memphis. It was about 8:24 p.m. on January 7th when they pulled him over.


He stopped his car in the middle of that left-turning lane and almost immediately, officers withdrew their weapons and they rushed his car demanding that he get out.

In seconds, they ripped him from the vehicle, Tyre was on the ground struggling, they deployed pepper spray. He was demanding an explanation, trying to figure out why they stopped him to begin with. A struggle ensued, he finally wound up on his feet, and he took off heading in that direction.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Tase -- oh, shit.

SANCHEZ: Officers discharge a taser at the 29-year-old, but apparently it misses. They begin to chase him as other officers are called to the scene.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Young male, black, slim build, blue jeans and a hoodie. Southbound Ross where we last saw him.

NICHOLS: What are you doing?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Shut the fuck up --



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give me your hand. Give me your hand!

SANCHEZ: The body camera footage picks up about a quarter mile away, and eight minutes later, at this intersection, it shows two officers on top of Tyre beating him and pepper spraying him all as he calls out for his mother. Over the next five minutes, that mounted police surveillance camera shows what unfolded here.

Officers bludgeoning him with punches and kicks and a nightstick. Much of the blows coming with Tyre not posing any apparent threat. Eventually, it's here at this intersection that they dragged his body and slumped him over onto a police vehicle, all of this unfolding only about 80 yards from his mother's front door.

UNDENTIFIED MALE: Why you sprayed on me?!




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Watch out! Watch out!



SANCHEZ: Then officers are seen fist-bumping and heard speculating whether he was on drugs. While Tyre Nichols is slumped over and bleeding.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He high, he high as the mother.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Hey, shut up, bro. Shut up, man.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Here you go, here you go --


SANCHEZ: At 8:41 p.m., two medical personnel arrive on the scene. They've been placed on leave as their response to the incident is investigated. It isn't until 9:02 p.m., 21 minutes later that an ambulance finally pulls into view of the camera, rushing Tyre Nichols to the hospital where three days later he dies. Boris Sanchez, CNN, Memphis.


ROMANS: It's just -- it's just awful to watch. Let's bring in CNN legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Joey Jackson. Joey, thanks for getting up early for us this morning. I want you to listen to what the Memphis police chief said on Friday.


CERELYN DAVIS, POLICE CHIEF, MEMPHIS POLICE DEPARTMENT: This is one of three teams whose primary responsibility is to reduce gun violence, to be visible in communities -- we had record numbers in 2021, 346 homicides.


DAVIS: So, this unit was put together and they had great success.


ROMANS: But they've disbanded it now, right? Is that enough to address the issues with the police department, disbanding that so- called SCORPION, you know, saturation unit?

JOEY JACKSON, CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Yes, Christine, good morning to you. I think it's a significant first step. I think that any unit of police activity has to be about policing the community in a way that instills trust and certainly secures order. I think units not only here, right, in this particular jurisdiction, but throughout the country, have to examine, Christine, number one, who are they recruiting and how are they recruiting them?

Number two, how are they training them to meet whatever? Number three, mission that they ultimately have. And so, I think while it's a significant first step, it's certainly not enough. And so, I think if anything, this should spark a re-examination. Listen, to be clear certainly, we need police, communities need police, police need communities, it's a cooperative and collective effort.

But it has to be under control. Police serve an important role in deterring crime and detecting crime. But to act as units, once you're going out there and demoralizing communities and savagely beating people, I don't think that's the answer. We have to get our hands around the issue, and I think hopefully, this, if Mr. Nichols' death means anything, it will really spark a discussion, and not only a discussion, but activity towards reform of what these units are doing --

ROMANS: Sure --

JACKSON: And how they're doing it.

ROMANS: And not just in Memphis, right? I mean, you think that this is a conversation that police departments are having across the country.


JACKSON: Yes, I really think that needs to happen. You know, it's unfortunate as an understatement, right? That something always needs to happen before some activity or some legislation or some reform takes place. But I think, again, if anything, I think units everywhere in every city and every locality and every state have to really look at what these units are doing.

Are they helping communities? Are they policing with courtesy? Are they policing with professionalism? Are they policing with respect? And when you grab someone out of a car and you're throwing "f" bombs and having no regard at all, and then you're destroying a human being who is not fighting, there's no immediacy of any threat, right?

The force you're using is grossly disproportionate to what he's doing, your behavior is patently unreasonable, if that's what these units are doing here or any place else in the country, there's no need for them and it certainly has to be ended here and everywhere else if that's their mission and mandate just to intimidate and really savage neighborhoods. It can't happen, Christine. You need to restore --

ROMANS: Right --

JACKSON: Trust and until you get that trust and respect, I think we move backwards.

ROMANS: Do you think there will be additional charges against those officers or any others involved? I mean, watching that piece that we just put together for you, I mean, you can see a lot of people milling around while this young man, this 29-year-old man is slumped essentially dying against a police car.

JACKSON: Yes, that's the travesty of it all. What we do know is certainly as a result of the release of this, there were two other sheriff deputies apparently who were at least suspended at the time. Now, that's a first step. Will there be other shoes to drop? Remember, this, Christine, it's not only when you engage in the activity of the involvement of Mr. Nichols' death which didn't need to occur clearly, but it's your inability to act in the face of a duty to act.

You have a responsibility as a law enforcement official, right? To preserve and to protect and to ensure even someone who is in your care if there were use of force that you engage in life-sustaining measures. Was that done? Were other people around who could have intervened and done something about it?

I think as the investigation continues, that will be an important part of it. And in the event that there's accountability to be had elsewhere, I'm certain that that's what we'll get.

ROMANS: All right, Joey Jackson, nice to see you this morning, thank you for your thoughts.

JACKSON: Of course, thank you, Christine.

ROMANS: All right, Joey. Quick hits across America now. Police in Oregon searching for a man accused of kidnapping a woman and beating her unconscious. They say Benjamin Foster may be using dating apps to lure new victims and evade capture. A suspect being chased by Atlanta police flipped a stolen squad car right onto railroad tracks with the train coming straight at him. Officers pulled him from the car seconds before the train slammed into it.

The city of Alhambra honoring the man who is credited with disarming a Monterey Park gunman last weekend in California, Brandon Tsay was awarded the medal of courage on Sunday. All right, chaos in Haiti, police officers blocking streets and storming the country's main airport in protest. And will 2023 be the year of the EV?



ROMANS: A Russian teenager faces years in prison over a social media post criticizing the invasion of Ukraine. The 19-year-old accused of terrorism and denigrating the Russian army after posting an Instagram story on the October Crimea bridge explosion. CNN's Clare Sebastian joins us live from London. What can you tell us, Clare, about this 19- year-old's social media post and you know, why the -- why the Russian government would even care?

CLARE SEBASTIAN, CNN REPORTER: Yes, Christine, I think worth remembering is we're at this critical point in the war that one of the ways that Russia has been able to sustain this battle is through an ever harsher crackdown on criticism of the war at home. Doling out ever harsher punishments to people and, look, this is not the first person that we've seen fall victim to this, but she's certainly among the youngest.

Olesya Krivtsova who is from northern Russia now facing terrorism charges, she's been put on a list, you know, with the likes of ISIS and al Qaeda for a post which her lawyer says was Instagram stories related to the bombing of that Kerch Bridge, that critical piece of infrastructure linking Russia with Crimea, allegedly criticizing the war.

She's also facing separate criminal charges for discrediting the Russian army. That was, of course, made a criminal offense at the beginning of the war back in March for reposting something on a Russian Facebook equivalent, for kind of attack here. Those two things together, the terrorism charges could lead her up to seven years in prison.

The criminal charges discrediting the army up to three years. She is now under house arrest at her mother's house, and not an isolated case, Christine. We are hearing from the independent monitoring group over the info that there was 61 cases initiated under terrorism on the internet charges last year, 26 led to sentencing.

So, if you're wondering why the Russians are not turning out in droves anymore to protest this war --

ROMANS: Right --

SEBASTIAN: This will go some way to explain it.

ROMANS: Indeed, all right, Clare Sebastian, thanks, Clare. All right, violence and unrest intensifying in Haiti after police officers were killed in Port-au-Prince last week. Officers now finding themselves outgunned and overwhelmed by armed gangs that are expanding their grip on the city. CNN's Patrick Oppmann has more.


PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): In a city largely run by gangs where lawlessness is a part of daily life, this was an unusual day.