Memphis special police unit accused in Tyre Nichols’ death faces scrutiny
By Chandelis Duster, CNN
All five of the former Memphis police officers charged with murder in the beating of Tyre Nichols were members of a recently created unit that was tasked with tackling rising crime in the city.
When it was launched in 2021, the SCORPION unit — Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — was heralded as a direct response to some of the city’s worst crime, with a focus on homicides, robberies, assaults and other felonies.
Mayor Jim Strickland championed the unit, mentioning it during an address to the city in January 2022 and proudly pointing to 566 arrests — 390 of which were for felonies — and more than $103,000 in cash seized.
Yet Strickland reversed his praise on Friday in the wake of Nichols’ death, saying the SCORPION unit was made inactive pending an independent review. And on Saturday — less than a day after video of SCORPION members beating Nichols was released to the public — the Memphis Police Department announced they will “permanently deactivate” the unit.
“While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the title SCORPION, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department, take proactive steps in the healing process of all those impacted,” the department said in a statement. “The Memphis Police Department remains committed to serving our community and taking every measure possible to rebuild the trust that has been negatively affected by the death of Mr. Tyre Nichols.”
CNN’s chief law enforcement and intelligence analyst John Miller said the creation of the specialized unit made sense at the time.
“Statistically, crime was off the hook. Tactically, it was the logical move for a police department to create SCORPION,” Miller said. “These units are sent to areas where the police are tracking upticks in violent crime.”
And while he said “targeted deployments can have a good impact,” he noted there could be issues.
“The problems may lie in three key places: Did they receive specific, tailored training in de-escalation and how to manage events from spinning up too fast? In the selection process, beyond choosing officers who had records of making gun arrests, did they look at their civilian complaint history, use of force histories, and talk with their former supervisors about their fit for this kind of work? Finally, supervision,” he said.
Police chief praised “great success” of SCORPION unit
A Memphis police spokesperson confirmed that all five former police officers involved in the beating were members of the SCORPION unit.
In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis acknowledged the unit was involved in the stop and said it was created due to “an outcry because of three years of violence in the city.”
“You know, numbers of violent crimes, robberies, homicides, aggravated assaults, and this is one of three teams, whose primary responsibility is to reduce gun violence, to be visible in communities, and to also impact the rise in the crime,” Davis said on “CNN This Morning.” “We had record numbers in 2021, 346 homicides. So, this unit was put together and they had great success, believe it or not, last year. It was the first year in a long time that we had reductions.”
Asked if the death of Nichols was an indication of a failure of the unit, Davis told Lemon it’s “an indication that there is a gap somewhere in that unit.”
“My observation is that, you know, we have several contributing factors. We train and we retrain these officers, just like specialized units around the country. These officers working in specialized units, you always need to make sure that the supervision is there and present,” she said.
Davis also said the department was unaware of any evidence that members of the unit have previously engaged in similar behavior but said an investigation was underway.
Family attorney calls for unit’s disbanding
Nichols, 29, was pulled over by Memphis police officers on January 7 for suspected reckless driving, according to the department, when “a confrontation occurred” between officers and Nichols.
Memphis police say Nichols fled on foot, and when apprehended by the officers, “another confrontation occurred,” resulting in Nichols’ arrest.
Three days after the stop, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation announced Nichols had died due to injuries sustained in the “use-of-force incident with officers” and preliminary results of an autopsy that was commissioned by attorneys for his family show that Nichols suffered “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating.”
The video made clear what that police “confrontation” entailed — officers punched and kicked Nichols multiple times while his hands were restrained, and then left him slumped and motionless against a car without proper medical care for over 20 minutes.
Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith, the police officers involved, have been terminated for failing in their “excessive use of force, duty to intervene, and duty to render aid,” police said.
They were charged with second-degree murder on Thursday, though it’s unclear what role each of them allegedly played. The five former officers, who are free on bond, are scheduled for arraignment on February 17.
Two fire department employees and two Shelby County Sheriff’s Office employees have also been put on leave pending an investigation.
Attorneys for the family had called on the police department to disband the SCORPION unit at a news conference on Friday.
“The intent of the SCORPION unit has now been corrupted,” attorney Antonio Romanucci said. “It cannot be brought back to center with any sense of morality and dignity — and most importantly — trust, in this community.
“The intent was good, the end result was a failure,” he continued. “And we must recognize that and do something about it.”
In a statement Saturday, attorneys Romanucci and Ben Crump praised the decision to deactivate the specialized unit as “appropriate and proportional to the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, and also a decent and just decision for all citizens of Memphis.”
“We hope that other cities take similar action with their saturation police units in the near future to begin to create greater trust in their communities. We must keep in mind that this is just the next step on this journey for justice and accountability, as clearly this misconduct is not restricted to these specialty units. It extends so much further.”
Memphis City Council chair Martavius Jones told CNN on Saturday the focus should be on conducting an overall review of law enforcement units.
“If there are no new training ideas, if there are no new directives, then we’re just putting lipstick on a pig,” he said.
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CNN’s Eric Levenson, Alisha Ebrahimji, Mark Morales and Amanda Watts contributed to this report.