(MEMPHIS, Tenn.) — The Memphis Police Department unit at the center of Tyre Nichols’ death earlier this month has now come under scrutiny from critics over its approach to fighting crime.
The SCORPION unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, was announced in October 2021 and launched a month later. It encompasses 40 officers split into four teams who patrol “high crime hotspots” throughout the city, the police department announced in November 2021.
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.
“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.
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.”
The Memphis PD did not immediately comment on Crump’s allegations. The Memphis Police Association, the union representing the city’s police officers, hasn’t commented on the case as of Jan. 27.
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 a statement.
Tony Romanucci, another attorney representing the family, called on MPD Chief Cerelyn “CJ” 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.”
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