After Tyre Nichols’ beating death, Memphis police ‘SCORPION Unit’ under fire
In early 2022, as violent crime rose in Memphis, Mayor Jim Strickland set out his ideas for returning safety to the city.
At the top of his plan: increase funding to the Memphis Police Department, give raises and bonuses to officers, and continue the usage of the city’s newly formed “SCORPION Unit,” a specialized group of four roving 10-person teams that use data to target high-crime neighborhoods with the goal of addressing homicides and other violent crime.
In just a few months, Strickland said the unit had made 566 arrests and seized more than 250 weapons.
But the quick-strike unit that received his plaudits almost exactly one year ago is now under review by the police chief since five of the 40 officers belonging to SCORPION were charged with murder in the Jan. 7 beating of Tyre 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 Friday release of the video detailing the beating of Nichols — has reinvigorated critiques of specialized anti-crime teams across the country and could result in the disbanding of SCORPION.
“From Baltimore to Chicago and D.C., units like the SCORPION unmarked cars — regardless of what the units are named — cause terror in minority communities,” said the attorneys for Nichols’ family, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, in a letter to the Memphis Police Department calling for the unit to be disbanded.
Activists and defense attorneys in Memphis said the SCORPION unit is notoriously violent and known for targeting impoverished areas.
“They essentially prey on low-income Memphians,” said Amber Sherman, an organizer with the Black Lives Matter Memphis chapter.
The SCORPION unit was created as Memphis was going through a particularly disturbing rise in homicides.
The city logged 342 killings in 2021, the most in its history. The SCORPION Unit was implemented in October of that year.
At the time, law enforcement officials called the unit essential to fight out-of-control crime.
“It is important to us that each member of the community feels like they can go to the grocery store or live in their house without their house being shot, or the shootings that are frequently occurring on the streets and in the roadways. So, for that reason we launched the SCORPION Unit,” Assistant Chief Shawn Jones said when the unit was started in 2021.
The Memphis Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the unit.
Critics are blaming SCORPION members for various abuses.
Just days before the violent arrest of Nichols, Memphis resident Cornell Walker said he was accosted by a group of SCORPION officers that included some of those who are now charged in Nichols’ death.
Walker said that when he and his friend, who were sitting in the friend’s car, were first approached by the officers they believed they were being targeted by “young guys” who wanted to steal the car . Walker claimed he saw Officer Emmit Martin III step out of an unmarked police vehicle.
“‘I need to see your motherf— hands or I’ll blow your motherf— heads off,’” Walker said Martin screamed at him and his friend.
Walker did not realize they were police at first, until he saw their badges and the word “SCORPION” on the back of their shirts.
Martin came over 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 had guns out as well. Walker says he saw Martin, Justin Smith and Demetrius Haley on the scene — three of the cops now charged in the Nichols case.
“I said I just came over here to get a pizza,” Walker said. “He [Martin] didn’t ever give a reason of why he pulled up on the car.”
Neither Walker nor his friend was arrested in the incident, Walker said.
Walker was so disturbed by his experience that he called the Memphis Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit the next day, according to cellphone records shared with The Times. But he claims a sergeant disregarded his complaint.
“He [the sergeant] kept justifying it. I was pulled out at gunpoint. With these people dressed 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 preventable…. If internal affairs had taken action it could’ve prevented it from happening, I believe.”
Johnny Graham, a 50-year-old Memphis resident, recalled his run-ins with the SCOPRION unit, whose members he said had gone out of their way to pull him over on several occasions.
“They feel like they have the right to pull you over for no reason at all,” said Graham, recalling one such traffic stop in East Memphis.
After being stopped by an unmarked police squad, Graham said he and his wife suffered the indignity of having to stand by and watch as officers searched his car, in full view of passing motorists.
“We’ve been telling y’all this all the time, why did it take somebody getting killed” for people to take notice, Graham asked.
Far from being “bad apples” in the department, he said, the fact that the officers were “comfortable” using such force in front of their colleagues suggested that the problem went deeper than one unit, he said.
“Them officers didn’t just get up that morning and say, ‘You know what, I’m just going to throw all that training I’ve been getting out the window.’ No, they’ve been doing this,” he said.
Josh Spickler, a former public defender and co-founder of the criminal justice advocacy group Just City, said Memphis recently reduced the amount of time officers must have served on the force to join the SCORPION Unit. He pointed out that all five of Nichols’ accused killers had less than five years on the job, evidence, he said, that the specialized unit is poorly disciplined.
Spickler also criticized the police chief, saying she should be held accountable for “the large role that policy and directives played in this death.”
Jany reported from Memphis and Goldberg and Queally from Los Angeles.