The Memphis Police Department on Saturday announced it will “permanently deactivate” its SCORPION unit after officers in the unit were fired and face charges in the death of Tyre Nichols.
Memphis, Tennessee, law enforcement officials released disturbing footage of the fatal police beating of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died three days after a traffic stop on Jan. 7. The video shows officers using a taser on Nichols, hitting him with a baton and kicking and hitting him in the head.
The officers charged in Nichols’ death include members of SCORPION, or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The Institute for Public Service Reporting says all five were part of the unit.
“The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step,” the release says. “While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the tile SCORPION, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department, take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted.”
Here’s what to know:
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Family of Tyre Nichols demanded SCORPION unit be disbanded
Saturday’s news followed calls from Nichols’ family to dismantle the unit.
Antonio Romanucci, Nichols’ family attorney, said SCORPION and other specialized police units target the “most vulnerable” as he called on law enforcement agencies nationwide to examine their saturation units.
“These are suppression units,” he said. “These are saturation units. And what they really turn out to be are oppression units. And what they do is they wind up oppressing the people that we care about the most — our children, our young sons and daughters who are Black and brown — because they are the most vulnerable.”
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Other cities’ specialized police units draw scrutiny, scandal
Specialized police units have also drawn scrutiny elsewhere in the country in scandals spanning multiple decades:
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Why did Memphis launch the SCORPION unit?
Amid surging homicide rates, the Memphis Police Department launched SCORPION in late 2021 as a 40-person unit with teams in so-called “hot spots” for crime, according to a video announcing the unit’s launch.
Two months after the launch, Strickland applauded the unit in his state of the city address, claiming the team was responsible for 566 arrests between October 2021 and Jan. 23, 2022.
Why specialized units can morph into ‘uncontrolled policing’
Philip Stinson, criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said the purpose of saturation units is often to make police presence known and intimidate residents by “swarming into an area, being visible and taking quick action to make many arrests.”
But Stinson said these specialized units are “troubling in many ways” because they may “have a lot of aspects of street justice, a lot of aspects of uncontrolled policing.”
In surveillance footage, officers involved in the killing of Nichols appear to be wearing “quasi military-type uniforms” rather than typical police uniforms, and some of their vehicles appear to be unmarked, Stinson said.
If officers are in plainclothes or use unmarked cars, they “may feel they have cover of anonymity in order to conduct misdeeds,” said Keith Taylor, adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Specialized units may feel ‘untouchable’ and need more supervision, experts say
The celebration of specialized units may make many of its members feel “untouchable,” fueling issues with excessive use of force, said Duane T. Loynes Sr., professor of Urban Studies and Africana Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.
Taylor, a former New York Police Department assistant commissioner, said specialized units are needed in some cases, but need to be supervised carefully. “When you don’t have the supervision, you can have deadly consequences.”
Hans Menos of the California-based Center for Policing Equity also said the SCORPION team may have been acting with little oversight and targeting communities of color.
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis acknowledged the police department has a supervisor shortage and said city officials have pledged to provide more of them.
“The lack of supervision in this incident was a major problem,” Davis said.
Contributing: Laura Testino, the Commercial Apeal; Craig Shoup, Nashville Tennessean; Rick Jervis and Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY
Contact Christine Fernando at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.