The family of Tyre Nichols and others appalled by his death—for which five fired Memphis cops now face murder charges—welcomed the police department’s decision on Saturday to disband a unit created in 2021 to patrol high-crime areas.
The move came a day after the Tennessee city put out videos of the former Memphis Police Department (MPD) officers—Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr., and Justin Smith—brutally beating Nichols following a traffic stop on January 7. The 29-year-old Black man was hospitalized and died three days later from cardiac arrest and kidney failure.
The MPD’s Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION) Unit hasn’t been active since Nichols’ January 10 death, according to the mayor. The five ex-officers, who are all Black, were part of the unit and on assignment with it when they pulled over Nichols, police spokesperson Maj. Karen Rudolph confirmed to multiple news outlets on Saturday.
In public comments leading up to the footage being released Friday night—which sparked nationwide peaceful protests—Nichols’ family along with Memphis residents and people across the United States called for the unit to be shut down.
The MPD said in a statement that members of the unit met with Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis on Saturday “to discuss the path forward for the department and the community in the aftermath of the tragic death of Tyre Nichols.”
“In the process of listening intently to the family of Tyre Nichols, community leaders, and the uninvolved officers who have done quality work in their assignments, it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION Unit,” the statement continued. “The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step.”
Big.— Gabriel Elizondo (@elizondogabriel) January 28, 2023
Memphis Police have shut down the so-called SCORPION Unit. The officers that beat Tyre Nichols to death were all part of that unit.
Several Memphis City Council members have called for it to be disbanded permanently. https://t.co/Q9XUei7LLn
In response, attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci said in a statement that “the Nichols family and their legal team find the decision to permanently disband this unit to be both appropriate and proportional to the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, and also a decent and just decision for all citizens of Memphis.”
“We hope that other cities take similar action with their saturation police units in the near future to begin to create greater trust in their communities,” the pair added. “We must keep in mind that this is just the next step on this journey for justice and accountability, as clearly this misconduct is not restricted to these specialty units. It extends so much further.”
Memphis City Council Member J.B. Smiley Jr. told the Commercial Appeal that shutting down the unit was “essential for the family” of Nichols, but “my ultimate concern is just, it may just be surface level,” because “the police department has the ability to create other units and just call it something else.”
Fellow Memphis City Council Member Patrice Robinson told CNN‘s Jim Acosta that “the community has a lot more questions and a lot more demands.”
“We have gotten emails from many citizens in our community, they’re all concerned and they’re expressing exactly what they see and what they want to see in our police department,” she said. “We really need to investigate and find out what’s going on.”
Rolling Stone reported on institutional changes that some locals want, according to Memphis organizer Amber Sherman:
They’re calling for widespread reforms in the Memphis police: dissolving similar task forces in the city, ending the use of unmarked cars and plainclothes officers, and banning traffic stops without probable cause. All three help escalate police violence, Sherman tells Rolling Stone. “We can’t just get rid of one of them. We have to do all three.”
The SCORPION Unit was only 14 months old when it was disbanded. Founded in late 2021 during a rise in the city’s murder rate, it was touted by local officials for its high number of arrests and a decline in violent crime, but locals say the unit quickly developed a reputation for its policing tactics. “Here in Memphis we call them the Jump-out Boys,” Sherman says. “They’re in unmarked cars, and they jump out of them and assault people.”
Activists in Memphis emphasized that this type of policing is not a new phenomenon. “It’s not just the SCORPION Unit. We’ve had these task forces for years,” Sherman continues. “I’m born and raised here, in my 20s, and this has always been a practice.”
National leaders also responded to the development on Saturday by warning that much more must still be done at all levels.
“This is what immediate action looks like in the face of crisis and traumatic events on behalf of a community,” NAACP president and CEO Derrick Johnson declared of the department disbanding the unit, while also wondering why local leaders can “move to address the needs of the people faster than elected officials throughout the halls of Congress.”
Meanwhile, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson tweeted: “This is good. And not enough. And we’ve seen this happen before only for these units to pop back up when the world isn’t watching.”
As news spreads the Memphis PD will disband the murderous “Scorpion” Unit, it is important to know that back in 2020 NYC disbanded its own “anti-crime” unit responsible for shootings, brutality, & Eric Garner’s murder.— Scott Hechinger (@ScottHech) January 28, 2023
NYC Mayor Eric Adams revived & expanded the unit last year. pic.twitter.com/YQaoKGMz8E
“I must reiterate that this is not the win they want you to think it is. Cops have and will continue to be brutal despite not being in a cool ‘special taskforce,'” coder, organizer, and YouTuber Sean Wiggs warned.
Legal reform advocate Dyjuan Tatro similarly argued that “the problem with this statement is that the SCORPION Unit should have never existed. It’s well documented that police special units are violent, reckless, and racist. Furthermore, the rest of the officers of this violent unit are still on the police force, armed and ready to kill.”
Strategist and writer Jodi Jacobson took issue with another element of the department’s statement, telling the MPD: “It was NOT a ‘tragic death.’ It was murder at the hands of our department. What you say matters, and you clearly are not taking responsibility.”