Memphis Police’s Scorpion Unit Disbanded After Fatal Beating of Tyre Nichols. Why That’s Not Enough
When news broke on Saturday that the Memphis Police Department’s Scorpion Unit was disbanded, Amber Sherman, a community organizer in the city who has helped lead the demonstrations for Tyre Nichols, seemed unimpressed: “Yep. Now they need to answer all the demands.”
The five police officers who fatally beat Tyre Nichols during a traffic stop on Jan. 7 hailed from the specialized anti-violence unit — which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. Less than 24 hours after the city released the brutal footage of the stop, the police department announced that the Scorpion Unit would be “permanently deactivated.”
The announcement followed a string of swift actions that have aligned with the family and community’s demands: All five officers were charged with murder, kidnapping, and aggravated assault, and two firefighters and two sheriff’s deputies on the scene have been “relieved of duty” pending internal investigations.
But when it comes to institutional change, local organizers say that disbanding the unit alone won’t address the problems that led to Nichols’ death. 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 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,” Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, attorneys for the Nichols family, said in a Saturday after the Scorpion Unit’s disbandment.
“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. 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.”
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.”
The Scorpion Unit technically used a strategy known as “hot spot policing” or “saturation patrol,” where departments put a higher concentration of officers in areas experiencing higher crime rates. In an open letter earlier this week, Nichols family attorney Ben Crump previously demanded the end of the unit in Memphis, and called on the Department of Justice to investigate this type of policing nationwide. “These types of aggressive units are used in cities across the country and are intended to flood troubled areas with officers to stem high crime,” he wrote. “But what we’ve seen this month in Memphis and for many years in many places, is that the behavior of these units can morph into ‘wolf pack’ misconduct.”
Within that policing strategy, organizers have also called for an end to “pretextual traffic stops” — which is, most likely, how Nichols was pulled over that night. (And Philando Castile in 2016.) It’s essentially stop-and-frisk, but in a car. If police have a hunch that a driver has committed a crime — or think the driver just looks “suspicious” — but don’t have probable cause to question them, police pull the driver over for a petty traffic offense.
A rep for the Memphis police department did not immediately respond to Rolling Stone‘s request for comment.
Studies have shown that giving police unbounded discretion to pull over anyone they see fit disproportionately affects people of color, while rarely turning up evidence in non-traffic crimes.
The legitimacy of the traffic stop has been called into question even further because of the felony kidnapping charges against the five officers. “For the district attorney to charge the officers with kidnapping Tyre Nichols during the arrest is such an unusual move that it’s almost astounding, but it likely reflects the fact that the officers had little to no justification to apprehend him in the first place,” said civil rights attorney V. James DeSimone in a statement.
“Let’s call it what it is,” Crump said at a press conference. “It’s a racist traffic stop.”
In their near-daily demonstrations, the family and community organizers have also demanded that the names of all of the public personnel at the scene be released, including the white officer who was heard on bodycam video saying, “I hope they stomp his ass.”
“Anyone who could watch someone beat someone that viciously to death, not intervene — where’s your duty to care?” says Sherman. “I don’t want those people around me and my community. Everyone should know who they are.”
So far, Memphis’ institutions have responded swiftly to Nichols’ death: within two weeks, five officers involved in the beating had been fired from the force; within three weeks, all five had been charged, and the city’s police chief had called the incident “a failing of basic humanity.” Sherman credits the steps toward accountability to organizers’ constant presence at the doorstep of city officials. “You’ll see it tonight, you’ll see throughout the week, you’ll see throughout next weekend,” she says. “We’re gonna keep showing up until we get exactly what we’re asking for.”
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