MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A controversial police unit at the center of Tyre Nichols’ death has since been dismantled as an internal investigation is underway.
The unit was announced in November 2021. Memphis police said the SCORPION team would be tackling violent crime in the city. SCORPION was an acronym for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.
At the time, MPD brass told WREG the unit was comprised of three parts– crime suppression, auto theft, and gang activity. In June, they also told the city council the unit started working with station commanders to tackle reckless driving.
They said the unit wasn’t subject to dispatch calls, much of their work was routine policing, and the main purpose was visibility.
“The unit consists of 40 officers that consist of 4, 10-men teams,” Mayor Jim Strickland said at last year’s State of the City address.
He applauded their work and said the unit was helping reduce violent crime and homicides.
“Since its conception last October, through three days ago, the SCORPION Unit had a total of 566 arrests,” he said.
But Strickland didn’t say how the unit managed to arrest so many people so quickly. There was no mention of how the officers were picked to be in the unit nor their training, chain of command, or directives.
On the night of January 7, SCORPION officers pulled over an unarmed Black man. They say Tyre Nichols was recklessly driving, although the chief says she hasn’t found any proof.
MPD later released the video from that night capturing the officers’ disturbing and aggressive tactics against Nichols as they beat, stunned, struck and kicked him.
Nichols’ injuries were so severe, he was taken to the hospital in critical condition. He died three days later.
Nichols’ family and attorneys demanded the SCORPION Unit be scrapped. They stated units like it can “morph into wolf pack misconduct” and cause “terror in minority communities.”
“These officers went off the rail and went beyond the scope of what we’ve seen in our scorpion unit,” Chief CJ Davis said on WREG’s Live at 9.
Chief Davis and Mayor Strickland agreed there needs to be an outside, external review of MPD’s specialized units and use of force policies. On Friday, the mayor announced the Department of Justice and the International Association of Chiefs of Police will do that.
“I’m not ready to say our SCORPION employees are doing bad things,” Davis said.
She reiterated the some 2,000 felony arrests they made and the 800 guns they got off the street.
“I don’t have regrets about creating units. Like I said, we just added more units to the department, so that we could try to at least address some of the violent crime that we’ve seen,” Davis said.
A day after the interview with WREG Investigators, MPD sent out a statement that Chief Davis listened to “the family of Tyre Nichols, community leaders, and the uninvolved officers” and it’s in the “best interest” to “permanently deactivate” the SCORPION Unit.
It was a decision applauded by Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy, whose office continues to investigate Nichols’ death and those involved.
“I hope that it triggers a broader conversation about the need for proper supervision and training of these units if we have to have them,” Mulroy said.
Davis has said the SCORPION team received regular training for high-risk traffic stops, de-escalation tactics, and fair and impartial policing.
WREG asked MPD for an interview to find out more. We haven’t heard back.
We filed multiple requests under the Tennessee Records Act like who was assigned to the unit, who was in charge, details of their training and directives, and complaints made against the unit and officers in it. We will let you know when we hear back.
“He physically pulled me out of the car by my shoulder with a gun no more than a foot from my head,” Cornell McKinney first told WREG Investigators.
He said his forceful encounter with the SCORPION Unit happened just days before Nichols was pulled over. He said the SCORPION officers never explained why they pulled him over.
He showed us the calls he made to Internal Affairs to complain. He said those calls went unanswered.
“If history is any guide, that’s going to continue,” attorney Jake Brown said.
He’s represented citizens who’ve filed excessive force complaints against MPD. He told us his mantra is “read the fine print and know the rules of the game.”
He said the city must commit to releasing the results of the review into the specialized units because transparency helps build trust.
“The specifics of that investigation are extremely important in terms of getting real transparency,” Brown said.
We’ve asked the mayor’s office if they’re committed to doing that, but haven’t heard back.
What we do know, Chief Davis admitted that night the SCORPION officers involved in Nichols’ traffic stop didn’t follow training and department policies. They didn’t follow their oath to protect and serve.
Five now-former officers are charged with second-degree murder, another has been fired and at least one more is under internal investigation.