The city’s homicide rate was skyrocketing and residents were clamoring for action when the Memphis Police Department announced a new anti-violence unit with a scary name.

“MPD’s new SCORPION UNIT launched!” read a publication on the department’s Facebook page in November 2021, along with a video clip showing a group of officers in tactical vests at a roll call.

The name stands for Operation Street Crimes to Restore Peace to Our Neighborhoods.

Now he is known for inflicting deadly violence on one of the city’s residents.

Authorities confirmed Thursday that Scorpion officers were among those responsible for the beating death of Tire Nichols after a traffic stop on January 7.

“The Scorpion unit was involved,” Shelby County, Tennessee, District Attorney Steve Mulroy said Thursday at a news conference announcing murder charges against five officers.

The attack on Nichols, which Police Chief Cerelyn «CJ» Davis called «heinous, reckless and inhumane,» has heightened scrutiny of the city’s reliance on specialized units to suppress violent crime. This “hot spots” approach has been used by cities across the country, but some advocates of police reform have said it contributes to the use of force and undermines public trust.

This week, Davis announced a review of all specialized units in the police department, including Scorpion, in response to Nichols’ death. The police department declined to comment further on the Scorpion unit on Thursday.

Nichols, 29, died on January 10, three days after the traffic stop in the Hickory Hill neighborhood of Memphis for alleged reckless driving, authorities said. A confrontation ensued, which led to Nichols being pepper-sprayed and running from officers before they beat him, Mulroy said.

Nichols tire.
Nichols tire.Courtesy of Ben Crump Law

City officials said a video of the beating would be released to the public after 6 p.m. Friday.

The Memphis Scorpion unit was created in October 2021 under the police department’s Organized Crime Unit. Composed of 40 officers divided into four 10-member teams, the unit was tasked with not only tackling violent crime, but also investigating car thefts and gangs. The officers’ “crime suppression” assignments changed depending on where the crime was worst.

memphis set a homicide record in 2021 for the second consecutive year. The police department reported 346 in 2021, up from 332 the year before.

Mayor Jim Strickland promoted the new Scorpion unit as part of the solution in his January 2022 State of the City Address. He touted it as part of an anti-crime strategy that also included a gun violence intervention program and more money for the police department. In its first three months, Scorpion made hundreds of arrests and seized hundreds of cars and weapons, Strickland said.

The Scorpion-led operations promoted on the police department’s Facebook page give an idea of ​​their work: arrests that begin with traffic stops, escalate into more serious confrontations and end with drug and gun arrests of people. The unit also arrested a suspected stolen car salvage shop after tracking down a stolen car, searched the scene of a robbery and found drugs and weapons, and apprehended a suspected car thief.

Mark LeSure, a former Memphis police sergeant who retired in 2021, said he began to see a large number of relatively inexperienced officers being assigned to specialized units as much of the police force began leaving in recent years. Those units did not have enough high-level personnel to train the new officers, he said, adding that he was concerned.

“Rookies were being put in specialized units where they didn’t have to be,” he said.

LeSure said he has been told by former colleagues still in the department that the Scorpion unit, which was launched after his retirement, is known for having a «zero tolerance» policy on crime, which he said means that officers «do what they can to arrest people.» ”

The officers charged in Nichols’ death were hired between 2017 and 2020. They are between the ages of 24 and 32.

Five Memphis police officers have been fired in connection with a traffic stop that led to the death of Tire Nichols.  Clockwise from top left: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith, and Desmond Mills Jr.
Five Memphis police officers have been fired and charged in connection with a traffic stop that led to the death of Tire Nichols. Clockwise from top left: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith, and Desmond Mills Jr.Memphis Police Department via AP

E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman, who was director of the police department from 1976 to 1983, said he was surprised to hear that young, inexperienced officers would be placed in a unit like Scorpion. When he led the force, officers were not considered for specialized units without at least seven years on the job, he said.

“You are using officers to send a message that we are here and that we are not going to tolerate any more criminal activity,” said Chapman, who is the executive director of CrimeStoppers of Memphis and Shelby County, which offers cash for tips on crimes «In that context, it is very easy to cross the line, which obviously happened in this case.»

Chelsea Glass, an organizer with Decarcerate Memphis, which advocates for criminal justice reform, said Scorpion was a «rebrand» of a common police tactic: a street crime-fighting team that relied on traffic stops. low level as pretexts to find violent criminals and weapons.

“They harass residents every day and call it high level police,” Glass said. “But really it’s just stop-and-frisk on wheels. It doesn’t matter what name you give it.»

Keedran Franklin, a Memphis community organizer, said Scorpion was like other specialized police units, including the county-run Multi-Agency Gang Unit, in that officers seemed to instill fear and mistrust because of the way they that confronted people.

“The way they drive around in unmarked cars, they look like normal guys, they play rap music, they put on hoodies, they really look cool, like they’re part of the community, but they’re cops,” Franklin. saying. «So someone maybe slips up, smokes weed or isn’t wearing a seatbelt or doesn’t have a headlight, and they jump out and stop you and want to check your car.»

Only after the officers got out of their cars would people see «SCORPION» on the back of their vests.

“They are their own little inside gang,” Franklin added. “When they are released on the streets, how does that affect ordinary citizens?”