After Tyre Nichols’ beating death, police ‘SCORPION Unit’ under fire

In early 2022, as violent crime increased in Memphis, Mayor Jim Strickland laid out his ideas for restoring safety to the city.

Top of his agenda are: increasing funding for the Memphis Police Department, raising salaries and bonuses for officers, and continuing to use the city’s newly formed “SCORPION Unit,” a specialized group of four roving 10-person teams that use data target high-crime neighborhoods to combat homicide and other violent crime.

In just a few months, Strickland said, the unit made 566 arrests and seized more than 250 guns.

But the Rapid Response Unit, which received its recognition almost exactly a year ago, is now under scrutiny by the police chief as five of SCORPION’s 40 officers have been charged with the January 7 murder of Tire Nichols, who died days later. The SCORPION unit – which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods – has reportedly been inactive since the violent encounter.

The alleged killing by SCORPION officers – and the planned release of the video describing Nichols’ beating on Friday – has reignited criticism of specialist anti-crime teams across the country and could lead to SCORPION’s dissolution.

“From Baltimore to Chicago and DC, entities like the unmarked SCORPION cars — regardless of what the entities are called — are causing terror in minority communities,” Nichols family attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci said in a letter to the Memphis Die Police demand the dissolution of the unit.

Activists and defenders in Memphis said the SCORPION unit was notoriously violent and known to target impoverished areas.

“They’re essentially chasing low-income Memphis,” said Amber Sherman, an organizer for the Memphis chapter Black Lives Matter.

The SCORPION unit was formed when Memphis was going through a particularly troubling spike in homicides.

The city recorded 342 homicides in 2021, the most in its history. The SCORPION Unit was implemented in October of the same year.

At the time, law enforcement officials described the unit as essential to fighting out-of-control crime.

“It’s important to us that every member of the community feels they can walk to the grocery store or live in their home without having their home shot at or the shootings that often take place on the streets and walkways. That’s why we created the SCORPION unit,” said Assistant Chief Shawn Jones when the unit was launched in 2021.

The Memphis Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the unit.

Critics blame SCORPION members for various abuses.

Just days before Nichols’ violent arrest, Memphis resident Cornell Walker said he was approached by a group of SCORPION officers, including some of those now charged in Nichols’ death.

At a gas station, a black man in a brown jacket stands to the left and looks directly at the camera.

Cornell Walker poses for a portrait at the Marathon gas station in Memphis, Tennessee on Friday, January 27, 2023, where he was stopped by officers from the SCORPION unit, who pointed their guns at him on January 3rd. Walker claims some of the officers were the same as those charged in the death of Tire Nichols.

(Libor Jany/Los Angeles Times)

Walker said when he and his friend, who were in the friend’s car, were first approached by officers, they believed they were being attacked by “young guys” who were trying to steal the car. Walker claimed he saw Officer Emmit Martin III exit an unmarked police vehicle.

“‘I need to see your mother’s hands or I’ll blow your heads off,'” Walker said, adding that Martin yelled at him and his friend.

Walker didn’t initially realize they were police officers until he saw their badges and the word “SCORPION” on the back of their shirts.

Martin got to their car and pulled Walker out, pointing a gun directly at his head from just a foot away, Walker told The Times. The officer took him to the police car, where the other officers were also carrying guns. Walker says he saw Martin, Justin Smith and Demetrius Haley at the scene – three of the police officers now charged in the Nichols case.

“I said I just came here to get a pizza,” Walker said. “He [Martin] never gave a reason for stopping the car.”

Neither Walker nor his friend were arrested in the incident, Walker said.

Walker was so disturbed by his experience that he called the Memphis Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division the next day, according to cellphone records shared with The Times. But he claims a sergeant ignored his complaint.

“He [the sergeant] justified it over and over again. I was pulled out at gunpoint. With these people dressed up as undercover cops. How am I supposed to feel? I didn’t even know they were police,” Walker said. “I felt like [what happened to Nichols] was avoidable… If internal affairs had taken action, I believe they could have prevented it.”

Johnny Graham, a 50-year-old Memphis resident, recalled his run-ins with the SCOPRION unit, whose members he said had made efforts to stop him on several occasions.

“They think they have the right to stop you for no reason at all,” Graham said, recalling one such traffic stop in East Memphis.

After being pulled over by an unmarked police squad, Graham said he and his wife suffered the outrage of having to stand by and watch as officers searched his car in front of passing motorists.

“We’ve been telling you guys this all along, why did someone have to be killed in the first place,” Graham asked so people would take notice.

Far from being “bad apples” in the department, he said, the fact that officers were “comfortable” using such violence in front of their colleagues suggests the issue ran deeper than a unit, he said he.

“These officers didn’t just get up that morning and say, ‘You know what, I’m going to just throw all the training I’ve been given out the window.’ No, they did,” he said.

Josh Spickler, a former public defender and co-founder of the Just City criminal justice advocacy group, said Memphis has recently reduced the amount of time officers must have served with the force to join the SCORPION unit. He pointed out that all five of the killers accused by Nichols had been on the job for less than five years, evidence that the specialized unit was ill-disciplined.

Spickler also criticized the police chief, saying she should be held accountable for “the huge role that politics and policies played in this death.”

Jany reported from Memphis and Goldberg and Queally from Los Angeles. After Tyre Nichols’ beating death, police ‘SCORPION Unit’ under fire

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