State Watch

What is the Scorpion unit involved in Tyre Nichols’s death?

As the city of Memphis and the rest of the nation continue reeling from the death of Tyre Nichols, the specialized Memphis Police Department unit that was involved in the 29-year-old’s arrest has come under increased scrutiny.

The five police officers who have been fired and charged with second-degree murder and other crimes over Nichols’s death were all part of the specialized Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, or Scorpion, unit.

Nichols, a Black man, was pulled over by members of the unit on Jan. 7 and pepper-sprayed, tased and beaten during the traffic stop, according to footage of the incident released on Friday night. He died three days later as a result of his injuries.

What is the Scorpion unit and why was it created?

The Scorpion unit was launched in November 2021 with a focus on “violent crime reduction and the saturation of hot spot areas throughout the city,” according to a department announcement from the time.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis told CNN in a recent interview that the unit was created “basically out of an outcry from the community” following a record number of homicides in 2021.

“Last year was the first year in a long time that we had reductions,” she added.

Mayor Jim Strickland (D) also touted the program in a January 2022 speech on the state of the city, noting that the Scorpion unit was responsible for 566 arrests in its first few months in operation.

What went wrong?

Ben Crump, a well-known civil rights attorney representing Nichols’s family, has called for the Scorpion unit to be disbanded in the wake of Nichols’s death, saying that the unit had previously engaged in “this type of brutality.”

“We believe that this was a pattern and practice,” Crump said at a press conference on Friday. “And Tyre is dead because that pattern and practice went unchecked by the people who were supposed to check that.”

In an open letter to the Memphis Police Department on Thursday, Crump and fellow attorney Antonio Romanucci denounced “pro-active” or “saturation unit” policing like that of the Scorpion unit.

“These types of aggressive units are used in cities across the country and are intended to flood troubled areas with officers to stem high crime,” they said in the letter, per ABC 24 in Memphis. “But what we’ve seen this month in Memphis and for many years in many places, is that the behavior of these units can morph into ‘wolf pack’ misconduct.” 

What does the future hold for the Scorpion unit?

The Scorpion unit “has been and remains inactive” following Nichols’s death, Strickland said in a statement on Friday.

Davis said in a video message on Wednesday that there will be a “complete and independent review” of all of the Memphis Police Department’s specialized units, which includes the Scorpion unit. 

Tags Memphis Police Department Scorpion unit Tyre Nichols Tyre Nichols video

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