After charges were officially announced against five officers involved in the beating and subsequent death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols, the Memphis District Attorney quietly confirmed a critical detail: the officers were part of the SCORPION Unit. The unit is a special division of the Memphis Police Department that was launched in 2021 in response to outrage over George Floyd’s murder, and the intention was reportedly to find a better way to address the city’s rising crime. In light of Nichols’ death, the MPD police chief Cerelyn Davis announced a review of the use of all special units, including Scorpion.
Memphis was struggling with a high murder rate even before the pandemic, with 346 murders in a city of about 600,000 people in 2020. The FBI ranked it as the most dangerous city in the U.S. that year, and then, in line with the trend around the country, murders in the city rose by roughly 5 percent in 2021.
The city responded by launching the SCORPION Unit—SCORPION is an acronym, standing for the ‘Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods. It’s comprised of 40 officers who focus primarily on homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies, and carjackings. Officers are deployed to areas where the police department receives a high volume of calls daily. They are often in unmarked cars, making traffic stops, seizing weapons, and conducting arrests.
In addition to forming the SCORPION Unit, the effort to curb police violence seemed to have prompted the Memphis police to also implement reforms of their own that caught national attention. For example, it banned the use of “no-knock” warrants, a tactic involved in Breonna Taylor’s killing, in 2020. Memphis mayor Jim Strickland also introduced a program called Reimagine Policing, which welcomed citizens to offer feedback on the city’s public safety services in an effort to increase transparency. A report analyzing the responses included recommendations to evaluate MPD’s use of excessive force and improve community relations. The city also published a report that details when firearms and force were used by MPD. It found that physical force has been used far more in the years since 2016 when compared to baton, chemical agent, or taser.
In the few years that it existed, some residents complained of negative experiences with the SCORPION Unit. One man recounted his experience just days before they pulled over Nichols, telling local media that Scorpion Unit officers were physically and verbally aggressive to him. He was not arrested, and he said he tried to file a complaint with MPD’s internal affairs but never heard back.
One of the Nichols’ family attorneys described MPD’s SCORPION Unit as a “suppression unit” that winds up oppressing vulnerable Black and brown communities. “This SCORPION Unit was designed to saturate under the guise of crime fighting,” Antonio Romanucci said. He charged that the unit ended up creating a pattern of bad behavior by officers. A video of the beating that proceeded Nichols’ death is set to be released tonight. The officers involved in the beating were all Black.
The family has called on Davis to immediately disband the unit. It hasn’t done that—instead, he five officers who were involved in the beating were immediately let go. Davis confirmed on Friday that an outside entity will be hired to review her department’s specialized units “from every angle.” Strickland said the SCORPION Unit has been inactive since Nichols’ death on Jan. 10.