- The SCORPION unit of the Memphis PD was under scrutiny after the beating death of Tyre Nichols.
- The five officers charged with his murder belonged to the unit, which was put under investigation.
- As protesters gathered for a second night, the department said the unit was being “deactivated.”
MEMPHIS, Tennessee — The Memphis Police Department will “permanently deactivate” its SCORPION Unit, the department said Saturday, as protesters gathered for a second night of demonstrations over the killing of Tyre Nichols by five of the team’s officers.
Footage of the fatal beating was released to the public Friday.
The city had already announced it would hire an outside firm to investigate the unit, which was launched in 2021 and stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods.
The Shelby County district attorney, Steve Mulroy, confirmed at a press conference Thursday that the officers charged with murder over the beating death of the 29-year-old Nichols were part of the SCORPION Unit.
“It is clear that these officers violated the department’s policies and training,” Mayor Jim Strickland of Memphis said Thursday.
Strickland said at the time that the police force’s other specialized units would have their training, policies, and operations reviewed.
In announcing the unit’s disbandment, the Memphis Police Department said it made the decision after listening to Nichols’ family, community leaders, and “uninvolved officers.”
The news came as demonstrators gathered near the city’s civic center.
“The SCORPION Unit, that’s cool. That means we’re doing something right,” Casio Montez, an organizer, yelled over a bullhorn to a small crowd in the drizzle.
But he and other activists also said it wasn’t enough and are calling for the department’s entire Organized Crime Unit to be dissolved.
At a press conference at the Mt. Olive CME Church in downtown Memphis, Nichols’ parents and their lawyers had called on the Memphis Police Department to disband the SCORPION Unit and similar specialized squads.
“These often aggressive encounters flat out destruct trust between police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve,” Ben Crump, an attorney who specializes in civil-rights cases and is representing the family, wrote in an open letter Thursday, “but as we saw in the tragic and unnecessary death of Tyre Nichols, can also lead to physical injury or death when the culture of unchecked, pro-active policing overtakes common sense.”
Antonio Romanucci, an attorney who is also representing the Nichols family, said communities around the US had “saturation units” like the SCORPION Unit.
He said he expected that the review would find a disparity in use of force between that unity and regular patrol officers at the department.
He said these units were given “whispered impunity.”
At the church, Memphians chanted “call out the culture” and “Justice for Tyre Nichols.”
Earle Fisher, a pastor who’s been campaigning against police brutality in Memphis for 15 years, is part of a group of activists who had been helping the district attorney plan the timing of the charges and the release of the video footage.
Sitting at a café about 10 minutes from the church, Fisher told Insider he felt confident that wasn’t the first time the SCORPION Unit had been violent.
“It’s a systemic cultural problem within policing in Memphis and across the country,” Fisher said. “It’s an infection within the infrastructure itself.”
Crump backed up those suspicions on Friday, telling reporters at a press conference about allegations his team had handled recently. Crump said one man had reported being threatened by a SCORPION Unit officer with a gun just days before Nichols’ death, and another 66-year-old man described being “brutalized” by SCORPION Unit officers.
The SCORPION Unit was launched in November 2021 with the goal of goal of “violent crime reduction.”
Instead, just over a year later, the name evokes the violent beating death of Nichols earlier this month.
Experts told Insider that specialized police units like SWAT teams or K-9 teams were often necessary and served a unique purpose within police departments. But they can also wreak havoc on communities if their mandates are unclear, if officers are inadequately trained, or if the unit is insufficiently supervised.
“The intent was good — the end result was a failure,” the Nichols family attorney Romanucci said at a press conference Friday while urging for the SCORPION Unit to be dismantled. “The intent of the SCORPION Unit has now been corrupted. It cannot be brought back to center with any sense of morality and dignity.”
Bennie Cobb, a former captain of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office in Memphis, told Insider that while he believed the SCORPION Unit should be dismantled in the wake of Nichols’ death, another unit would inevitably form to address the same types of crime the SCORPION Unit was tasked with.
Cobb said both the Memphis Police Department and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office had seen similar units created over the years and then dissolved in the aftermath of controversies like fatal police encounters.
That phenomenon isn’t unique to Memphis.
The New York City Police Department disbanded a controversial plainclothes unit focused on violent crime in 2020 amid the George Floyd protests.
But amid an uptick in shootings, Mayor Eric Adams announced in 2022 that he would reinstate the anti-crime unit under a new name: Neighborhood Safety Teams.
The NYPD had done away with a similar unit known as the Street Crimes Unit in 2002, several years after its officers fatally shot Amadou Diallo.
Federal data tracks certain types of specialized police units, such as units for cybercrimes, missing children, human trafficking, and firearms. But the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ annual report on local police departments doesn’t track police units specifically focusing on “street crime.”
“There’s a reason that they’ve created these units, usually. Something happens and they realize, ‘Hey, we need to have this unit to address this problem issue,'” said Janne Gaub, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who studies specialty police units, adding that those issues often require specialized training that goes beyond the skill level of the average patrol officer.
“The important thing is that these kinds of units have a clear mandate, know what that mandate is, but get enough training for what it is the department wants them to do,” Gaub said. “And that they’re held accountable when they’re going outside that mandate.”
Correction: January 30, 2023 — A photo caption in an earlier version of this story misspelled the name of one of the Memphis police officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols. The officer is Tadarrius Bean, not Tadarrius Dean.