The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What is the Scorpion unit? Tyre Nichols’s family attorney decries the group.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump speaks at a news conference with RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, mother and stepfather of Tyre Nichols, in Memphis on Friday. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
3 min

The five Memphis police officers facing second-degree murder and other charges in the brutal beating death of Tyre Nichols were part of a specialized law enforcement unit named Scorpion, created in late 2021 with the goal of saturating high-crime neighborhoods with police presence. Even as that program faces renewed scrutiny from Nichols’s family attorneys, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said she believed it had done more good than harm in its 14 months of existence.

“These teams have worked really hard, and they’re under a cloud now,” Davis told The Washington Post. “People want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

Davis said she has suspended the rest of the Scorpion unit’s activities after inviting the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Department of Justice to examine the practices of all of the department’s specialized units. However, she believes Scorpion — Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — has largely been effective at crime reduction.

Scorpion, with 40 officers, was designed to reduce violent crime as the city saw 346 homicides in 2021. In its first months, the group, its members often driving unmarked police cars, made hundreds of arrests, seized over 250 weapons and $100,000 in cash, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland reported at the time. Davis said that in total, the unit has arrested more than 2,000 violent felons and recovered 800 illegal guns as homicides and violent crime decreased in the city for the first time in four years.

Memphis police video shows officers beating Tyre Nichols on Jan. 7. Nichols later died. (Video: Memphis Police Dept.)

In Strickland’s State of the City address in January 2022, the mayor touted the new program as a “crime suppression unit” that would focus on carjackings, homicides and robberies.

The police chief also defended Scorpion.

“We didn’t want people to think we were an occupying force in the community,” Davis said. “The intent was to increase visibility, give these communities some sense of a break from all of the gun violence we were experiencing. We had great success. They did good work. This group, we believe, went off the rails that night.”

A prominent button on the Memphis police website, labeled “Reimagine Policing,” leads to a webpage that discusses building trust between the community and law enforcement. It includes a list of best-practice policies to reduce police killings that it says the department has implemented, requiring officers to de-escalate situations — “eliminating the need to use force” — when possible and stop excessive violence by other police in all instances.

But according to Nichols’s family’s attorney, Ben Crump, Scorpion officers had used excessive force in other incidents before stopping the 29-year-old motorist. The Post has filed records requests for any complaints or disciplinary actions against members of the unit that have not yet become public.

“Citizens have reached out to us and the family about this happening to them,” Crump said. “We believe that this was a pattern and practice and that Tyre is dead because this pattern and practice went unchecked.”

Following the death of Nichols, Davis said there would be a “complete and independent review” of all specialized units. Jurisdictions across the country have units with similar mandates to reduce violent crime, which critics say is prone to devolve into unconstitutional policing in predominantly minority, low-income communities.

On Friday, Crump and Antonio Romanucci, another lawyer representing the family, called for the abolition of Scorpion and an examination of similar saturation patrols across the country.

“This Scorpion unit was set up under the guise of crime fighting,” Romanucci said. “The intent was good. The end result was a failure.”

Klemko reported from Annapolis. Justine McDaniel in Washington contributed to this report.

The death of Tyre Nichols

The latest: The Justice Department is launching a review of the Memphis Police Department’s use of force policies and practices. Each of the five former Memphis police officers pleaded not guilty in Tyre Nichols’ death. One of the officers texted a photo of bloodied Tyre to colleagues, according to records.

What has Memphis police footage revealed?: The race of the five officers charged in the Nichols killing has sparked a complex dialogue on institutional racism in policing. Some of the most haunting videos came from SkyCop cameras.

Who was Tyre Nichols?: The 29-year-old father was pepper-sprayed, punched and kicked by Memphis cops after a January traffic stop. He was pronounced dead at a hospital three days after his arrest. At Tyre Nichols’ funeral service, his family said they are focused on getting justice.

What is the Scorpion unit?: After the fallout from the brutal beating, Memphis police shut down the Scorpion unit.