When Memphis, a city in southwestern Tennessee, recorded a record number of homicides in 2021 for the second year in a row, many were calling for action.
Attention turned to the Memphis Police Department to tackle the murder rate, which led to the creation of the Scorpion Unit in October 2021.
“MPD’s new SCORPION unit is launched!” read a post on the department’s Facebook page, along with a video clip showing a group of officers in tactical vests during a roll call.
The name stands for the Street Crimes Operation to restore peace to our neighborhoods – yet officers from this same unit were responsible for the brutal assault by Tire Nichols this month during a traffic stop for alleged reckless driving.
“The Scorpion unit was involved,” Shelby County, Tennessee, prosecutor Steve Mulroy confirmed Thursday when he announced the murder charges against five officers.
Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who called the attack ‘heinous, reckless and inhumane’, announced a review of all specialist units in the police department, including Scorpion, in response to Mr Nichols’ death .
A unit designed for the “suppression of crime”
The Scorpion Unit was created in October 2021 as part of the police department’s Organized Crime Unit after a record 346 homicides were reported in 2021, up from 332 the previous year.
Comprised of 40 officers divided into four 10-member teams, the unit was tasked with fighting violent crime and investigating auto thefts and gangs.
In January last year, Mayor Jim Strickland promoted the unit as part of the solution to the high homicide rate, saying that in its first three months it had carried out hundreds arrests and seized hundreds of cars and weapons.
His operations were posted on the police department’s Facebook page: arrests that started with traffic stops, escalated into more serious confrontations and ended in arrests of people for drugs and firearms.
“The police are doing what they can to arrest people”
Mark LeSure, a former Memphis police sergeant who retired in 2021, said he began to see a large number of relatively inexperienced officers placed in specialized units as other members of the force quit. .
Mr LeSure added that the units did not have enough senior personnel to train the new officers.
“Recruits were placed in specialized units where they had no business,” he said.
Two of the five officers involved in the attack on Mr. Nicols, aged 24 to 32, had been on the job for a few years, and the others no more than six years.
Mr LeSure said some of his former colleagues who are still at the department told him that the Scorpion unit, which was launched after his retirement, is known to have a “zero tolerance” policy on crime – this which he said meant officers “do what they can arrest people”.
Police initially said Mr Nichols was arrested for reckless driving on January 7 and a ‘confrontation’ took place in a bid to arrest him.
However, Ms Davis said a review of the incident could not ‘substantiate’ the reckless driving allegation.
He died three days after the attack.
“Unity is an excuse to harass ordinary residents”
E. Winslow Chapman, the director of the police department from 1976 to 1983, said that when he led the force, officers were not considered for specialty units without at least seven years on the job.
Mr Chapman said: “You’re using officers to send a message that we’re here and we’re not going to tolerate any more criminal activity…and that can very easily go too far, which he obviously did in that case.”
Chelsea Glass, a Memphis community organizer who advocates for criminal justice reform, called Scorpion a street crime-fighting team that relies on traffic stops as excuses to find violent criminals and weapons.
“They harass ordinary residents and they call it high level policing,” he said.
“But it’s really just stop-and-frisk on wheels. It doesn’t matter what you call it.”
What do we know about officers?
The five officers have been charged with second degree murder, official misconduct, aggravated kidnapping, official oppression and aggravated assault.
Here’s what we know about each.
Demetrius Haley, 30
Haley joined the Memphis Police Department in August 2020.
He previously worked as a corrections officer for the Shelby County Corrections Department and was charged with assaulting an inmate.
The lawsuit against him was dismissed because the detainee did not complete all the documents.
Tadarrius bean, 24
Bean was also hired in August 2020 after working at a fast food restaurant and an AT&T telecommunications company, according to his LinkedIn profile.
He says he studied criminal justice and law enforcement at the University of Mississippi from 2016 to 2020, and interned with the campus police department.
Emmitt Martin III, 30 years old
Martin was hired by the Memphis Police Department in March 2018.
Joshua Harper, a pastor in Memphis, said he follows Martin on social media and the man pictured in the court documents “is not the person I know”.
“I was only shocked for a second because I understood he was a police officer and I know behind the badge that anything can happen when anyone has power and authority,” said Harper.
Desmond Mills Jr, 32
Mills was hired by the Memphis Police Department in March 2017.
He was nicknamed “Box” when he played American football for West Virginia State University.
One of his former coaches, Kip Shaw, said: “When I saw the news I was shocked. I’ve been coaching for a long time and you never know. I said to my wife: ‘This man played for us at West Virginia State’.”
Justin Smith, 28
Smith was hired by the Memphis Police Department in March 2018.
Following his arrest, Smith posted his $250,000 bond and was released Thursday evening.