Memphis Police Disband Scorpion Unit

January 30, 2023

The Memphis Police Department over the weekend disbanded its Scorpion Unit, following the release of video showing five of its members brutally beating 29-year-old Tyre Nichols following a traffic stop.

Nichols died at the hospital three days after the January 7 incident. All five Memphis officers—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmit Martin III and Desmond Mills Jr.—were fired and have each been charged with second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression.

On Monday a sixth Memphis police officer, Preston Hemphill, was relieved of duty in relation to the Nichols case. Maj. Karen Rudolph gave few details as to the reason except to say, “Remember, we said this investigation is ongoing. More information will be shared as it develops.” 

The Scorpion unit was formed by Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis in 2021 in response to quickly-rising homicide numbers. It was meant to deploy about 40 officers as a strike team in some of the most volatile areas of the city. However, Memphis residents soon complained of heavy-handed tactics, including Scorpion team officers employing punitive policing in response to relatively minor offenses.

In the wake of Nichols’ death after he was pulled over for what police initially said was “reckless driving”—although that has not been substantiated— and the murder charges of the five officers, community leaders are now trying to assess how a unit that was supposed to ease the violence in Memphis had instead inflicted an attack Chief Davis herself has called “heinous” and “inhumane.”

“The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step,” Memphis Police said in a statement. “While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the title SCORPION, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted.”

Davis, meanwhile, said the Scorpion officers’ actions showed a larger problem with police culture in Memphis, adding that it may be time to rethink the leadership within the department.

“You can have all of the ideal policies but if you have a culture that doesn’t have supervision, that doesn’t have adherence to the policies, then you’ve got problems,” Davis said. “You can never do enough leadership training, not just at the top level but also at the mid-managed level.”  

Nichols family attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci praised the department’s decision to disband the unit and called for other cities to “take similar action with their saturation police units in the near future to begin to create greater trust in their communities.”

“We must keep in mind that this is just the next step on this journey for justice and accountability, as clearly this misconduct is not restricted to these specialty units. It extends so much further,” the attorneys said in a joint statement.

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