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The death of Tire Nichols casts doubt on the SCORPION police unit created in Memphis after a wave of crimes


They announce a review of the specialized units created in 2021 due to the rise in homicides. “They harass citizens and they call that high-level police,” says an activist.

By Jon Schuppe, Rich Schapiro and Safia Samee Ali -

NBC News

When the homicide rate in the city of Memphis skyrocketed, some residents demanded action from the Police Department, which responded with a new anti-violence unit with a fearsome name: SCORPION (scorpion, in Spanish), it announced in November 2021. with a message on the Facebook social network that included a video of agents in tactical vests.

The acronym SCORPION translates into Spanish as Street Crime Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.

But that unit is now known for inflicting a fatal beating on one of the residents it was supposed to protect, Tire Nichols, who was killed after a police traffic check on January 7.

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy during a press conference Thursday following the indictment of five fired Memphis police officers for the murder of Tire Nichols.Mark Weber / AP

“The SCORPION unit was involved,” the Shelby County, which includes Memphis, Tenn., attorney Steve Mulroy admitted Thursday at a news conference announcing the second-degree murder charges against the five officers involved.

The attack on Nichols, which Police Chief Cerelyn


Davis has called "appalling, reckless and inhumane," has heightened scrutiny over the city's reliance on specialized units to crack down on violent crime.

This “hotspot” approach has been used by cities across the country, but some advocates of police reform have argued that it contributes to the abuse 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 this unit on Thursday. 

Nichols, 29, died on January 10, three days after a traffic stop in the Hickory Hill neighborhood of Memphis for alleged reckless driving, according to police, who on Friday acknowledged that there is no evidence that the young man did anything. wrong.

A confrontation ensued that led to Nichols being pepper-sprayed and running from officers before being beaten and fatally wounded, according to Mulroy.

Tire Nichols. Courtesy Ben Crump Law

The SCORPION unit was created in October 2021 within the framework of the 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 gang and auto thefts.

The agents' mission to “suppress crime” changed depending on the seriousness of the crimes. 

Memphis broke a 2021 homicide record for the second year in a row.

The police department reported 346 in 2021, up from 332 the year before. 

Mayor Jim Strickland touted the new 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, according to Strickland.

The SCORPION-led operations promoted on the Police Department's Facebook page give you a glimpse of their work: arrests that start with traffic stops, escalate to more serious confrontations and end with arrests of people for drugs and weapons.

The unit also busted an alleged stolen car salvage yard after tracking down a stolen car, searching a robbery site and finding drugs and weapons, and apprehending a suspected car thief. 

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Mark LeSure, a former Memphis sergeant who retired in 2021, said he began to see large numbers of relatively inexperienced officers being assigned to specialized units as many of the police officers began to leave in recent years.

These units did not have enough experienced personnel to train the new agents, he says, and that worried him.

“Rookies were assigned to specialized units where they had nothing to do,” he said.

LeSure said former colleagues who still work in the police have told him that the unit, which was launched after he retired, is known for having a "zero tolerance" policy on crime, which he says , means that officers "do what they can to stop people." 

The officers charged in Nichols' death were hired between 2017 and 2020.

They are between the ages of 24 and 32.

All five Memphis (Tennessee) Police Department officers arrested in the death of Tire Nichols.

From left to right, top to bottom: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills, Jr., and Justin Smith.

Memphis Police Department via NBC News

E. Winslow


Chapman, who was director of the Police Department from 1976 to 1983, said he was surprised to hear that young, inexperienced officers would be assigned to a unit like SCORPION.

When he directed the force, he did not consider agents for specialized units if they had not been on the job for at least seven years, he assured.

Chelsea Glass of the organization Decarcerate Memphis, which advocates for criminal justice reform, said SCORPION was a new format for a common police tactic: a street crime-fighting team that relied on low-level traffic stops. level as a pretext to find violent criminals and weapons. 

“They harass ordinary citizens and they call that high level police,” says Glass.

“But it's really just an arresting system on wheels.

It doesn't matter what name they put on it,” she said.  

Keedran Franklin, a Memphis community organizer, said that 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 how in which they confronted the people. 

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“The way they drive around in cars with no license plates, looking like normal guys, to the beat of rap music, with hoods on, they really give off the impression of being part of the community, but they're cops,” Franklin said.

"Then somebody slips up, smokes weed or isn't wearing a seatbelt or has their headlight out, and they jump out and pull over and want to check their car," she said.

Only after the agents got out of their cars would people see “SCORPION” on the back of their vests.

“They're their own little inside gang,” Franklin added, “when they're released on the streets, how does that affect ordinary citizens?”

Source: telemundo

All news articles on 2023-01-27

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