Some of the five former Memphis police officers accused in the fatal 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.
“Statistically, crime was off the hook. Tactically, it was the logical move for a police department to create SCORPION,” CNN Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst John Miller said. “These units are sent to areas where the police are tracking upticks in violent crime.”
Miller said “targeted deployments can have a good impact” but 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.”
It’s unclear how many of the officers involved in the Nichols incident are members of SCORPION, and Memphis police has not officially disclosed that information.
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy told reporters on Thursday that “the SCORPION unit was involved” in the fatal stop, but he didn’t specify a number. In an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon on Friday morning, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis acknowledged that 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 re-train 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.
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. On January 10, 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.”
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” and criminally charged, 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.
At a news conference on Friday, Antonio Romanucci, an attorney for Nichols’ family, called upon the department to immediately disband the unit.
“The intent of the SCORPION unit has now been corrupted,” 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.”
Strickland on Friday said the SCORPION unit which encompassed some of the officers involved in the traffic stop remains inactive pending an independent review.
“It is clear that these officers violated the department’s policies and training. I want to assure you we are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again. We are initiating an outside, independent review of the training, policies, and operations of our specialized units. Since this event happened, the SCORPION Unit has been and remains inactive,” he said.