A Memphis Police Department unit assigned to lower crime through saturation patrolling of high-crime areas has been permanently deactivated, police said Saturday, an apparent answer to calls from civil rights attorneys representing the family of a man who was beaten by officers and later died.
The unit has been tied to five officers who were fired and charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man. Video footage released Friday shows he was beaten by police.
The department confirmed to The Commercial Appeal on Saturday that the five officers, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith and Tadarrius Bean, were part of the department's SCORPION Unit.
The five former officers, who are Black, were on assignment with the unit when they stopped Nichols in a traffic stop, Memphis police spokesperson Maj. Karen Rudolph confirmed.
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"In the process of listening intently to the family of Tyre Nichols, community leaders, and the uninvolved officers who have done quality work in their assignments, it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION Unit," police officials wrote in a statement Saturday afternoon.
The announcement, which coincided with planned protests in Downtown Memphis Saturday, was celebrated.
Asked Saturday if the police department was planning a new unit focused on saturation patrolling to replace the SCORPION Unit, Rudolph told The Commercial Appeal "this is under review."
Attorneys for Nichols' family call on country to end saturation patrol units
In a press conference mid-day Friday reflecting on the charges brought against the five officers and in the hours ahead of the planned release of footage of officers beating Nichols, civil rights attorneys for the family, Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, called for the unit to disband and announced plans to file a civil suit against the practices of the unit.
"The intent of the SCORPION Unit has now been corrupted," Romanucci said Friday.
In a written statement Saturday afternoon, the attorneys called on other cities to disband saturation units: "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. 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."
Created under Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn "CJ" Davis' tenure at the police department in November 2021, the SCORPION Unit is an acronym for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The 50-person unit was established with a goal of lowering crime by 5%. It was initially structured to have some coordination with the department's Multi-Agency Gang Unit, composed of local, regional and federal agencies.
Remaining SCORPION Unit officers support deactivation 'unreservedly,' police say
On Wednesday, the night before the five former officers were indicted on felony charges related to Nichols' death, Davis said the department's special units, including the SCORPION Unit, would be independently investigated, and Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland later clarified the SCORPION Unit had been made inactive.
The review of the SCORPION Unit will continue even though the unit is now deactivated, Rudolph confirmed Saturday. She also confirmed to The Commercial Appeal that the review includes additional specialized units at the police department.
It is unclear who is conducting the investigation.
The department said officers assigned to the unit met with Davis Saturday to discuss the future of both the department and the community in the wake of Nichols' death.
"The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly" with the permanent deactivation, police said. "While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the title SCORPION, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted."
Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley Jr., who spoke at the protest Saturday afternoon, said the deactivation of the unit was "essential for the family," but was cautious in his praise.
"My ultimate concern is just, it may just be surface level. Because the administration and the police department has the ability to create other units and just call it something else," Smiley said. "We have to make sure that if we implement something like this that they have the appropriate oversight going forward. And here, we just let the people down. We failed Tyre Nichols. But we won't fail anyone else."
Smiley, in addition to other protestors Saturday, called for other officers seen in publicized video footage of Nichols' traffic stop and beating to be fired and charged, specifically an officer who calls for officers to "stomp" Nichols and appears to deploy his taser at the first scene, at Raines and Ross Roads, where officers pull Nichols from his car.
The officer's body camera footage shows Nichols' first encounter with officers and also shows Nichols run away.
"I hope they stomp his ass," the officer said.
The officer does not appear to be one of the five officers terminated and charged in Nichols' death. Davis has said other officers are under internal investigation, but neither the names nor employment statuses of those officers have been made public.
"That's the culture of police departments. Let's take it a step further. In addition to him being fired and charged, we need a complete overhaul of how we're training people," Smiley said. "It's that culture that perpetuates further crime in our community when I mean crime, I mean police crime."
Commercial Appeal reporters Omer Yusuf, Micaela Watts, Katherine Burgess and Dima Amro contributed to this report.
Laura Testino covers education and children's issues for the Commercial Appeal. Reach her at email@example.com. Find her on Twitter: @LDTestino
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Tyre Nichols footage: Memphis Police unit tied to death deactivated