The Memphis Police Department’s elite SCORPION street crime unit is facing calls to disband, after several members were involved in the traffic stop that resulted in the beating and death of Tyre Nichols. The unit was created to combat soaring violent crime, but critics say its aggressive tactics and lack of oversight are a recipe for tragedies like the fatal beating of Nichols , which was revealed in its full savagery in footage released on Friday. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Nichols’ family, said such units can turn into ‘a pack of wolves’ and called for an end to the SCORPION unit.
‘We believe that this was a pattern and practice, and Tyre is dead because that pattern and practice went unchecked by the people who were supposed to check that,’ Crump (pictured) said at a press conference. Five officers have been charged with second-degree murder in Nichols’ death, though it was unclear how many of them were part of the SCORPION unit, and MPD has not released that information.
The newly released footage of the initial traffic stop that led to Nichols’ death shows cops in the unmarked Dodge Chargers favored by the unit, wearing hoodies with the logo of the Organized Crime Unit, of which SCORPION is a part. Founded in October 2021 due to pressure over rising crime, SCORPION, stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods. Its mandate is to stem homicides, assaults and robberies. Memphis officials have said the unit comprises about 40 officers in four teams concentrating on crime hot spots. Each team has members focused on car theft, gang investigations and ‘crime suppression,’ Mayor Jim Strickland said in a speech in January 2022.
A 2021 video about the unit’s launch showed several dozen officers, mostly men, going through roll call before heading on patrols. Some wore plain clothes and drove unmarked cars. In its first few months of existence, between October 2021 and January 23, 2022, SCORPION made 566 arrests. Of those, 390 were felony arrests, according to Strickland. Officers seized tens of thousands of dollars and over 250 weapons, the mayor said. However, there have been prior complaints over SCORPION’s alleged heavy-handed tactics. Pictured: Cops are seen next to the type of unmarked Dodge Charger favored by SCORPION teams, following the January 7 beating of Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop.
Cornell McKinney told WREG-TV the same SCORPION team involved in Nichols’ death stopped him on January 3, four days before the fatal Nichols beating. ‘All I heard is a “Freeze, get out the car. Put your MF hands up before I blow your heads off. Both of you get out the car. Put your hands up,”‘ he said, recalling the incident, which occurred as he was catching a ride home with a friend. ‘So I put my hands up, and one of the officers proceeded to come to the car, and he physically pulled me out by my shoulder with a gun no more than a foot away from my head,’ said McKinney. McKinney said the cops accused them of having drugs in the car, demanding to know which of the two friends owned the drugs. But he says the cops then admitted they hadn’t found any drugs and let the two men walk free.
Later, seeing the officers charged in Nichols’ death, he recognized the faces as the same cops that had pulled him over. The five cops — Tadarrius Bean (top left), Demetrius Haley (top center), Emmitt Martin III (top right), Desmond Mills Jr (bottom left), and Justin Smith (bottom right) — have since been fired and charged with second-degree murder. One former veteran Memphis police officer who said he knew each of the charged ex-cops, told CBS News that ‘you have to be a go-getter, for the most part’ to join the SCORPION unit. ‘You have to be someone who wants to make a difference, who wants to catch the bad guy,’ he said of the ‘proactive’ mindset of the unit. ‘I never thought this would happen,’ added the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Because at least some of the officers charged with murdering Nichols belonged to SCORPION, questions have arisen over whether they were acting as part of the unit when they pulled him over for purported reckless driving.
Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, died in the hospital three days after the violent January 7 physical confrontation with the five black officers. The five officers have since been charged with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression and fired from their jobs. The Nichols case has raised concerns that the unit strayed from its core mission, had inadequate oversight and used tactics that increased the risk of violence. Crump (pictured), the attorney for Nichols’ family, pointed out that Nichols’ encounter with police began with a traffic stop, which does not fall under the unit’s mandate to address violent crime. Critics say such stops are excuses to search for weapons or drugs and can escalate into violence. It is not the fist time such units have faced scrutiny. In 2020, following the police murder of George Floyd, New York City dismantled its Anti-Crime Unit, which operated with similar tactics and goals as SCORPION.
Last January, amid soaring violent crime, the Anti-Crime Unit was restricted weeks after Mayor Eric Adams, a former NYPD captain, took office vowing to get tough on crime. Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis this week announced a review of all of the police department’s specialized units including SCORPION in response to Nichols’ death. She called the incident ‘heinous, reckless and inhumane.’ The department did not immediately respond to questions about SCORPION’S status, past complaints against the unit and whether all five officers were assigned to it.
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