What was the SCORPION unit, the now-deactivated police task force at the center of Tyre Nichols’ death?

Five officers assigned to the unit have been charged in Nichols' death.

January 28, 2023, 6:03 PM

The controversial Memphis Police Department unit at the center of Tyre Nichols' death earlier this month has been deactivated.

The SCORPION unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, has been "permanently" deactivated, the Memphis Police Department announced on Saturday, a day after city officials released footage of the fatal confrontation between Nichols and former members assigned to the unit.

The decision came after Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis met with other members of the unit, who agreed with the deactivation, according to a statement from the department.

"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 said.

What was the SCORPION unit?

The SCORPION unit, which launched in November 2021, encompassed 40 officers split into four teams who patrolled "high crime hotspots" throughout the city, the police department announced at the time.

MPD Assistant Chief Sean Jones told reporters during the launch that SCORPION officers would focus on auto thefts, gang-related crimes and drug-related crimes.

PHOTO: In this screen grab taken from a video, the Memphis Police Department announce the launch of the SCORPION unit, on Nov. 12, 2021.
In this screen grab taken from a video, the Memphis Police Department announce the launch of the SCORPION unit, on Nov. 12, 2021.
Memphis Police Department

"It's important to us that each member of the community feels they can go to the grocery store or live in their house without their house being shot or shooting frequently occurring on the streets and on the roadways," Jones told ABC affiliate WATN in November 2021.

The locations chosen by the police were determined based on the number of 911 calls, Jones said at the time.

Two months into SCORPION's deployment, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland touted the unit's effectiveness. In his state of the city speech, Strickland claimed the unit was responsible for 566 arrests, 390 of them felony arrests, seized $103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons between October 2021 and Jan. 23, 2022.

PHOTO: In this screen grab taken from a video, the Memphis Police Department announce the launch of the SCORPION unit, on Nov. 12, 2021.
In this screen grab taken from a video, the Memphis Police Department announce the launch of the SCORPION unit, on Nov. 12, 2021.
Memphis Police Department

Unit faces criticism

Criminal justice reform activists and some residents, however, have accused officers in the unit of using excessive force.

Ben Crump, an attorney representing Nichols' family, told reporters Friday that he had heard of several alleged instances of residents being pushed to the ground, cursed at and suffering other physical injuries at the hands of officers in the unit. One of the alleged victims was 66, according to Crump.

"He said he was confronted by this unit and he was brutalized, and he had pictures of his injuries," Crump said. "And so, it was foreseeable that something tragic like this was going to happen."

Crump repeatedly called to end the unit.

"You have a man literally laying down in distress, dying, and people are just talking like this is business as usual. Had Tyre not succumbed to his injuries, how many more times would they have done this and how many times have they done it before," he told ABC News Friday.

The Memphis PD did not immediately comment on Crump's allegations. The Memphis Police Association, the union representing the city's police officers, said in a statement Friday following the release of the footage that it is "committed to the administration of justice and never condones the mistreatment of any citizen nor any abuse of power."

Patrick Yoes, the president of the National Fraternal Order of Police, one of the largest police unions in the country, issued a statement Friday evening calling Nichols' death a "criminal assault" and saying the actions of the officers accused in his death "does not constitute legitimate police work or a traffic stop gone wrong."

“The men arrested and charged for this crime have rights, the presumption of innocence, and the due process protections of anyone accused of a crime, but the bottom line here is that Tyre Nichols, his family, and our entire country need to see justice done—swiftly and surely," Yoes said in the statement.

Tony Romanucci, another attorney representing the family, had called on Chief Davis to disband the SCORPION unit immediately, alleging that the unit has created "a continual pattern and practice of bad behavior."

"The intent of the SCORPION unit has been corrupted," Romanucci said at the news conference. "It cannot be brought back to center with any sense of morality and dignity, and most importantly, trust in this community. How will the community ever, ever trust a SCORPION unit?"

Strickland said in a video statement Thursday that the department would launch an "outside, independent review of the training, policies and operations" of its specialized units.

Davis said in an interview with ABC News' George Stephanopoulos on Friday that she was "horrified" by the video of the traffic stop that led to Nichols' death.

"As we continue to try to build trust with our community, this is a very, very heavy cross to bear -- not just for our department but for departments across the country," she added. "Building trust is a day-by-day interaction between every traffic stop, every encounter with the community. We all have to be responsible for that and it's going to be difficult in the days to come."

'Decent and just decision'

Crump and Romanucci said in a joint statement on Saturday that they and Nichols' family found the disbandment of the 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."

In the statement announcing the unit's deactivation, the Memphis Police Department said it "remains committed to serving our community and taking every measure possible to rebuild the trust that has been negatively affected" by Nichols' death.

"While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the title SCORPION, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted," the department said.

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