The Scorpion division emerged as Memphis pursued a tough strategy

Tyre Nichols runs away from the starting stop.  (Desiree Rios/New York Times)

Tyre Nichols runs away from the starting stop. (Desiree Rios/New York Times)

Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis Police Chief Serelyn Davis was in the position for just a few months in 2021 when she saw the homicide rate approach a record. Near her new home in the city center, drivers rushed madly through the streets, often late at night. She had a plan to face the chaos.

For reckless drivers, she told her team, cops should have focused less on issuing tickets and more on an all-out strategy to seize cars from the most dangerous drivers. With renewed urgency, violent criminals must be pursued. She determined that if the state could not take the case to court, her agency should instead go to federal prosecutors.

“We all understand the need to be strict with tough people,” she said at a public event in November of that year.

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Two days later, Davis, the first African-American woman to lead the department, launched her most ambitious strategy yet: a new unit called Scorpion—or the Street Crime Operation to Restore Peace to Our Neighborhoods—would send about 40 officers to act as a strike force. groups in some areas. from the most changeable corners of the city.

Soon, some residents were complaining about the heavy-handed tactics of officers from the new Scorpion team, using punitive measures in response to relatively minor offenses. The arrest and murder of Tyre Nichols followed, and on Friday videos were released showing officers kicking, punching and using clubs to beat Nichols as he begged them to let him go home.

Five officers have been charged with murder, and community leaders are now trying to assess how a unit that was supposed to ease the violence in Memphis instead carried out an attack so brutal that Davis herself called it “disgusting” and “inhuman.” The city announced the division’s disbandment on Saturday, and Davis called for a review of all of her department’s specialized divisions.

“We still want to fight crime in our communities, but we don’t have to kill innocent people to do it,” said Van D. Turner, Jr., a mayoral candidate, president of the city’s NAACP chapter and a recent voter. mayor’s advisory board to “rethink policing”.

For months, the city has been touting the Scorpion team as the key to its crime-fighting strategy, touting it as a near-instant success at a time when the city was posting a record number of murders. In 2021, over 300 homicides were reported in Memphis; in comparison, in New York, which is 13 times larger, there were less than 500.

Just days after the Scorpion unit was introduced, a local television report noted that the Memphis police had credited it with more than 30 arrests and seizures of at least 29 weapons and almost 170 grams of marijuana.

Scorpion’s alleged successes have been a topic of discussion by city officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, who spoke about the unit during his January 2022 City State of the Union speech and listed its first achievements: 566 arrests, 390 of them for felonies, and also confiscation of $103,000. cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons.

Marking her anniversary in May 2022, Davis gave a presentation to the City Council noting some progress in fighting crime. On the slide titled “REDUCING CRIME,” the Scorpion unit was her first item.

“We’ve created a new Scorpion unit,” she said, adding, “This unit is basically targeting some of the hotspots where we’ve seen frequent aggravated assaults and high crime rates.”

Like much of the country, Memphis saw a sharp increase in homicide rates in 2020 and 2021. Those numbers dropped slightly last year, but it wasn’t clear how much credit could be given to the Scorpion division as many cities also saw declines in 2022. Memphis recorded an increase in property crime last year.

Some activists and community members were wary of Scorpion Squad’s actions long before the attack on Nichols.

Hunter Dempster, organizer of Decarcerate Memphis, a group advocating accountability in the criminal justice system, said Sunday his organization had long warned about the Scorpion team. He said the unit’s main task seemed to be to hold mass protests in poor areas where many people of color live.

He described the unit’s employees as “violent” hooligans and said that many residents also wondered why the unit often uses unmarked vehicles, “ordinary vehicles that you would never think were cops.”

In any case, he said, people were ready for trouble whenever the Scorpion unit stopped traffic.

“If you get stopped, you know there is potential for violence,” he said. “That’s how the general public is terrified of these divisions.”

Such debates have reverberated in cities across the country, with a number of cities re-establishing specialized units to aggressively prosecute offenders in high-crime areas during the pandemic — in some cases, this has happened in cities that have disbanded such units in years past. when there were concerns about the tactics or results of the units.

In 2020, for example, the New York City Police Department disbanded aggressive units known as “crime units” that patrolled the city, often in civilian clothes. Tasked with removing guns from the streets, such groups have made huge numbers of arrests with firearms. But they are also responsible for a disproportionate number of stop-and-go searches and police shootings. Last year, new mayor Eric Adams, himself a former police commander, revived a version of these units, although officers now wear modified police uniforms rather than street clothes.

Adams was one of many local politicians across the country who have won elections over the past two years after running on anti-crime platforms.

Lawyers representing the Nichols family called on federal officials to investigate police division hotspots, saying they often operate with impunity to oppress youth and communities of color. Antonio Romanucci, one of the family’s lawyers, said that while the unit’s intentions were good, the result was a failure.

“This Scorpion unit was created to saturate under the guise of fighting crime, and ended up instead creating a continuous pattern and practice of bad behavior,” he said. Lawyers said they heard of other cases prior to Nichols’ death in which the Scorpion unit used excessive force.

Outlining her strategy for fighting crime in 2021, Davis specifically mentioned reckless driving in Memphis, calling it the worst she’s seen in her career and expressing her fear of being on the roads herself.

The city was involved in drag racing and stunt riding. On a Saturday night in late November, all four lanes of traffic were closed on Interstate 240 as two drivers started making donuts on the highway and several onlookers recorded the action on their phones. Local officials used the incident as an argument to call for more legal leeway to confiscate violators’ cars.

“We were for: take the car,” Davis said in 2021. Even if the case is closed in court. We have witnessed this. You did it. You may experience discomfort for three days without a car. Enough.”

Police said they stopped Nichols on the night of January 7 on suspicion of reckless driving, though Davis later told NBC News the department could not find evidence as to why he was stopped. The video shows police surrounding Nichols’ car at an intersection, scolding him, and pulling him out through the driver’s side door. Nichols spoke in a calm tone, apparently trying to defuse the situation, while the officers continued to swear and shout.

After being beaten by the police, he ended up being taken to the hospital in critical condition. Nichols died three days later. Lawyers for his family said that an independent autopsy found that Nichols was “bleeding heavily from the severe beating”.

After the unit’s disbandment was announced on Saturday, some city officials said they wanted to see what march orders were given to the unit when it was formed.

“We’ve all been tripping over to compliment them because we have a problem with violent crime and a problem with drag racing,” councilman Worth Morgan said. “But this was done under the pretext that they would protect and serve, not violate anyone’s rights, and these officers acted in an extremely problematic way.”

Another board member, Frank Colvett Jr., said he had not heard complaints about Scorpion prior to Nichols’ death, but agreed with the decision to dissolve it.

“I support shutting down the unit until we know more about their recruitment and exactly how they are trained,” he said.

On Sunday, a group of about a dozen protesters gathered outside the Memphis Police Department’s Ridgeway Police Station for the third straight day of protests.

At the demonstration, Casio Montes said in an interview that the deactivation of the Scorpion unit was a positive first step, but the organizers also wanted another crime-fighting unit, a special operations group dealing with illegal drugs, to be disbanded.

Montes said he had been stopped by the Scorpion Unit in the past, including once when he said he was “beaten up” by the unit’s officers.

“It wasn’t intimidating,” Montez said. “I just know it was unjustified.

Montes, who is black, said that in his experience with the unit, the officers “only escalate the situation.”

“They’re coming out of a situation that’s probably level 3, but they’re coming out of the car like it’s level 10,” Montes said. “So, at the end of the day, we have to take apart the entire department and rebuild it. Until we do that, there will be another tire.”

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