Tyre Nichols death: What is notorious Memphis police SCORPION unit accused in killing of unarmed black man?

The specialised police unit which the five Memphis police officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols were part of was established with the intention of stopping serious crimes.

But now, the very future of the unit, known as SCORPION or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, is in question as lawyers and community activists call for its wholesale overhaul.

The unit, consisting of 40 officers, was set up in October 2021 and received a high-profile launch. The officers were to be split into four teams and focus on car theft, gang-related offences, and drug crimes.

Memphis assistant police chief Shawn Jones told reporters the unit would patrol high-crime areas, and try to make all citizens feel safe.

“It is important to us that each member of the community feels like they can go to the grocery store or live in their house without their house being shot, or the shootings that are frequently on the roads or streets,” he said. “So, for that reason we launched the SCORPION unit.”

Two months after the launch, city Mayor Jim Strickland, claimed the unit had already proved to be effective.

According to ABC News, in his so-called “state of the city” speech, he said it was responsible for 566 arrests, 390 of them felony arrests, and had seized $103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons in just four months.

Yet, critics say such units, that exist in many police departments across the country, can do exactly the opposite. That is precisely the case if officers feel they can act with impunity.

The five officers charged with the murder of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith – were all members of the outfit.

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On Friday, as the city prepared to release video footage of the arrest of Nichols, family lawyer Ben Crump called for the Department of Justice to investigate the unit.

“Pro-active policing or saturation unit policing, whether the officers are in unmarked cars wearing tactical vests or “jump-out boys” in plain clothes and undercover, is defined by several common and dangerous components,” he said in an open letter, written with fellow lawyer Antonio Romanucci.

“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.”

He added: “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 that takes away a person’s liberty or freedom to move, akin to a kidnapping.”

They said in some specific cases, as when performing DUI checks, the units can work well if they have a controlled mandate.

“However, the rampant and unchecked patrols taking on other crimes without oversight and transparency are where things go off the rails and officers can act with impunity in the community like a pack of wolves,” they wrote.

They said such units are not usually involved in regular traffic stops, which was the initial reason that Nichols was pulled over

“But the “why” of Tyre Nichols’s death is found in this policing culture itself, not something Tyre personally did,” they added.

“And his running in fear for his life in-between a series of beatings was an affront to the officers, who wanted to show Tyre and the city of Memphis that as a team they can take anyone down. No one escapes the Scorpions.”

The lawyers called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to launch an independent investigation into the unit.

Earlier the week, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis announced a “complete and independent review” of all the department’s specialised units.

Meanwhile, Mr Strickland, the mayor, said in a email to the city, the group was now  inactive.

“It is clear that these officers violated the department’s policies and training. I want to assure you we are doing everything we can to prevent this from happening again,” he said.

“We are initiating an outside, independent review of the training, policies, and operations of our specialised units. Since this event happened, the SCORPION Unit has been and remains inactive.”

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