Muscle Cars, Balaclavas and Fists: How the Scorpions Rolled Through Memphis

  • In US
  • 2023-02-04 17:58:10Z
  • By The New York Times
Tyre Nichols flees the initial traffic stop.
Tyre Nichols flees the initial traffic stop.  

For 14 months, officers from the high-profile Scorpion unit of the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee patrolled city streets with an air of menace, zooming up on targets, jumping out of their Dodge Chargers at a dead run, shouting at people to get out of their vehicles, lie down on the ground.

They did it to Damecio Wilbourn, 28, and his brother as they pulled up to an apartment building last February. They surrounded Davitus Collier, 32, as he went to buy beer for his father in May. And last month, they beat Monterrious Harris, 22, outside an apartment complex, where he said he was waiting to spend time with his cousin.

These and other Scorpion encounters typically began over something minor - a tinted-window violation, a seat-belt infraction, a broken taillight or a cracked windshield - and often resulted in officers finding illegal drugs, unregistered weapons, stolen cars and outstanding warrants. Their tactics could be aggressive, according to interviews and records, with arrestees being subdued by baton, pepper spray, Taser and the brute force of the officers' fists.

Wilbourn said the Scorpion officers threw him against the car. They chased and eventually pepper sprayed a frightened Collier in the face. And when officers, in balaclavas and hoodies, pulled Harris out of his car, he said, they beat him so severely that he was left with cuts and a black eye.

On Jan. 7, three days after Harris' arrest, several of the same officers involved would go on to swarm Tyre Nichols, pulling him from his car and kicking and beating the 29-year-old amateur photographer with a baton as he begged them to let him go home. He later died at the hospital.

In some quarters of the city, Nichols' death was shocking, but it was not a surprise. Even as city officials credited Scorpion officers with bringing down violent crime, their presence had spread fear in the predominantly low-income neighborhoods they patrolled, and records show that Black men were overwhelmingly their targets.

Since its formation in November 2021, the specialized squad of about 40 officers that was deployed to deter violence in some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods was responsible for repeated acts of intimidation, harassment and violence by some of its officers, according to interviews with dozens of people in the community, including several arrested by the unit's officers.

"Police out here riding around like hound dogs," said Lareta Johnson Ray, whose family members wound up in a violent encounter with the unit's officers after running from them last summer. The Scorpion unit was "terrorizing this city," Ray said, and Nichols' death was "not the first time that they be beating on people - it was the first time that they messed up."

Young Black men have disproportionately borne the brunt of the Scorpion operations: A New York Times review of arrest affidavits in about 150 of what are estimated to be thousands of cases handled by the unit suggests that the unit's tactics appeared to rely heavily on the vehicular equivalent of "stop and frisk," a tactic that civil rights advocates say can drive racial profiling and put people of color at risk of police violence.

In the sample reviewed by the Times, about 90% of those arrested by the unit were Black - much higher than the share of the city's population that is Black, about 65%. Black residents across Memphis were three times as likely as white residents to be subjected to physical force by police officers, according to department data over the past seven years.

The uses of force, according to those interviewed, were not always minor. Some said they were left bloodied and bruised. One man, his lawyer said, suffered a busted jaw.

Two of the officers charged in Nichols' death had been disciplined previously after using force and failing to submit the required documentation on how it was used, according to personnel files. In one of those cases, a woman reported being beaten by officers and slammed against a patrol car.

To city officials, the arrests and seizures that the Scorpions tallied on a near-daily basis signaled that the unit was achieving its mission in a city that in 2021 had endured more than 300 homicides, a record. The city soon began touting the Scorpions' hundreds of arrests, its seizures of scores of drugs, guns, vehicles and cash - with Memphis police noting on Facebook the unit's role in high-profile cases, often posting photos of items that officers had confiscated.

"Police have really changed and modified what they are doing under the Scorpion," Mayor Jim Strickland said in a television interview on Jan. 11 - the day after Nichols died - while crediting the unit with helping reduce homicides in the city. "It is a team they have really directed at that."

Within a few weeks, the Scorpion unit would be disbanded and five officers charged in the killing of Nichols, a case that has sparked national outrage and renewed discussion about the use of specialized crime-fighting units in neighborhoods that are often home to low-income families and people of color.

The Memphis Police Department did not respond to queries about the Scorpions' past arrests, and on the training and policies that governed the unit's operations. The department has not disclosed records of past citizen complaints against the unit. Many of the Scorpion officers remain on the force, and it is unclear how many operated with the aggressive tactics that arrestees detailed in interviews.

Michalyn Easter-Thomas, a member of the City Council, said she did not hear about the volatile encounters people had with the Scorpion unit until after Nichols' death.

"I just wish we would have known sooner," she said. She also expressed concern about the unit's apparent focus on stopping people with minor violations, and said she would be proposing a prohibition on traffic stops for issues such as a missing brake light or late registration.

The dissolution of the Scorpion unit was just the beginning of addressing a larger problem, said Amber Sherman, a community organizer who led recent protests.

"We want a disbandment of every special task force," Sherman said. Police have long used such units "to overcriminalize low-income, poor Black neighborhoods and to terrorize citizens," she added. "We want that ended."

'I Was Terrified'

Residents could spot Scorpion teams by their cars: sometimes marked police cars, but often a pack of several unmarked Dodge Chargers driving in a straight line.

Mike Scholl, a defense lawyer who has had several clients arrested by the unit, said the problem was the officers' often heavy-handed tactics - some of his clients said they were beaten - and the perception that the Scorpions often seemed to be looking for trouble.

"If they pull you over and nothing is happening, they'll create something," Scholl said.

In encounter after encounter, Memphis residents said, the Scorpions had a similar playbook: Officers would spot some minor infraction, jump out and begin asking questions and barking commands. Some said the officers offered no explanation about what they had done wrong, leading to confusion and sometimes disobedience. Some of those interviewed said they had tried to run away, in part, out of pure fear.

"I was terrified, really, because the way they pulled up," Wilbourn said of his Feb. 19 encounter with Scorpion officers. "They could have been anybody, they didn't announce themselves or anything, they didn't turn any sirens on, any lights or anything."

Wilbourn said he and his brother Romello Hendrix, an aspiring rapper, were preparing to meet friends to shoot a music video and were just getting their recording equipment out of their Infiniti when they were cornered by a line of Chargers.

Two officers jumped out, the brothers said, demanding to know what they were doing at the apartment complex. Moments later, Wilbourn said, an officer threw him against the Infiniti, and more officers surrounded him.

One mentioned smelling marijuana. When they searched the car, they found an ounce of marijuana and a loaded pistol, which Hendrix said was a legally obtained weapon he had brought for protection. "People out here are crazy, try to steal your car. They know I go to work and probably have something," he said.

Hendrix was arrested on gun and drug charges. Wilbourn received a citation for possession of a controlled substance. All charges against the brothers were eventually dropped, which they said bolstered their argument that they should never have been stopped.

The Shelby County district attorney's office confirmed that the marijuana case had been dropped. "Mr. Hendrix had a very small amount of marijuana. He made a charitable donation to the charity of his choice and the case was dismissed," said Erica Williams, a spokesperson for the office.

Harris, who was arrested last month, said he was also in a parking lot when a group of Scorpion officers suddenly surrounded his car, yelling at him to get out and threatening to shoot him.

"I was real scared - like, terrified," he said. "I didn't see any signs of security or police or anything."

The men punched him and threw him to the ground, injuring his face; Harris said he believed his screams for help, which prompted several people to emerge from a nearby apartment complex, kept the incident from getting worse.

Police in court records said Harris had driven rapidly at officers before backing away. Harris said he had been maneuvering to park his car. He was arrested for possession of marijuana - a charge his lawyer denies - and a handgun, which Harris said belonged to his cousin.

It was only later, he said, after Nichols' death, that he read the news accounts and realized that the officers charged in that case were the same ones who had arrested him.

Maurice Chalmers-Stokes, 19, described a similar encounter with the Scorpions: He was leaving the barbershop one day in October when he noticed an unmarked car starting to follow him. The people inside were wearing balaclavas, and he did not realize at first that they were police officers.

"They were coming at me aggressively, and they didn't approach me how a regular officer should approach a person," Chalmers-Stokes said. "I thought they were going to kill me."

Chalmers-Stokes started running. He was bumped by the car, he said, but got up and tried to keep running. One of the officers tackled him to the ground.

"When he tackled me, I hit my head on a brick and skidded my head up," he said. "When they put me in the handcuffs, he turned around like he was going to beat me, but another officer came and got him off me."

The police said in the arrest affidavit that they had found Chalmers-Stokes walking in the "middle of the street," and that when they searched his backpack, they found a Glock pistol, which they believed to be stolen. Chalmers-Stokes has said the weapon was legally in his possession. His lawyer said prosecutors had so far not produced any evidence to confirm the gun claim; prosecutors did not respond to a request to discuss the case.

Chalmers-Stokes said he realized after Nichols' arrest that the officer who had been pulled off him was Demetrius Haley, one of those now charged in Nichols' fatal beating. "It could have been me that died," he said. "That could have been me in Tyre Nichols' situation."

'A Soulful Place'

Built to look like a townhouse development, Chickasaw Place is standard-issue low-income housing in Memphis: a collection of squat, two- and three-story brick buildings that is home to working people - truck drivers, electricians, grocery store clerks - yet struggles with drugs and violent crime.

"It's a soulful place. You've got some good, you've got some bad," said Christopher Wilson, 33, a painter who was visiting friends one recent afternoon.

He said it was not always an easy place to live. "It'll be a normal day, and sometimes it just starts to pop off," he said.

An arrest affidavit in August described a wild scene at the complex: Scorpion officers were cruising in to check out a report of outsiders looking to stir up trouble there when they saw a man running away from them holding a gun with an extended magazine. They tackled him, but then another man walked up and pushed an officer in the chest, the affidavit said, and several officers brought him to the ground. The incident was first referenced in a report by the Institute for Public Service Reporting Memphis.

By then, a crowd of more than 60 people had gathered and was growing hostile toward the police, "yelling curse words at them and becoming more aggressive," the affidavit said. Fearing trouble, the Scorpion team called for backup.

Witnesses and three of the people arrested that day denied that anyone was violent with an officer and said the police were the aggressors. They identified three of the officers present that day as among the five who have since been charged with killing Nichols.

Sebastian Johnson, 19, and his cousin Kendrick Johnson Ray, 20, said they were with two other cousins, hanging outside on a hot summer day, when police arrived.

The officers came in "all rah-rah, jumping out the car, cursing and yelling, guns out like they were storming the place," said Shantrell Harris, 35, whose apartment overlooks the spot where the incident took place.

Johnson was the man that the police said they saw running away, but he insisted in an interview that he had no gun and that he had already been walking away when the officers appeared. He bolted when the police called out to him, he said, because "I don't like them, I don't trust them. They always looking to beat on people."

Police said they seized a bag of marijuana, a digital scale and $110 in denominations of twenties and tens, which the document called "consistent with illegal narcotic sales." Johnson and Ray, both slight young men who were left bloodied and bruised by the Scorpions, were charged with two other cousins with a slew of felonies, including criminal trespass, unlawful possession of a weapon, evading arrest and inciting a riot.

All of the charges are now in the process of being dropped in exchange for the two men agreeing to take an hourlong, online gun-safety course, according to their lawyer, Brandon Hall.

'What Did I Do?'

When Collier went out with his brother and a friend in his father's car to buy beer for his father on Memorial Day weekend last year, he broke a rule he has known since childhood.

"You don't ride three, four deep when you're Black," Collier said. "You do that, you're getting pulled over."

The three men presently found themselves stopped by Scorpion officers for a seat-belt violation, although Collier said all of them were wearing seat belts.

In Collier's telling, it all unfolded quickly.

One of the officers - Emmitt Martin, among those charged in Nichols' killing - demanded Collier's identification.

"I said, 'What did I do?'"

They went around in circles. At one point, Collier said, the officer told him that he had found a murder warrant connected with the car. "I told him, 'No way' - there is no way there is a murder warrant connected with my 58-year-old father's car," Collier said. "That was a straight-up lie," he said. "It was meant to scare me. It didn't."

What did scare him, he said, was that the officers sometimes had their hands on their holsters. Then Martin took out a telescoping baton. "He whipped it out, like a light saber."

Martin eventually began to pull Collier out of the car, he said - prompting him to run.

He said he made that decision for two reasons: He knew he had a warrant stemming from a domestic violence complaint. But looming even larger was the fact that he did not want to be arrested on the side of the road, without many witnesses nearby.

"I made the decision because he was getting aggressive, and there was no one around," Collier said.

He ran toward a convenience store and soon found himself surrounded by at least a dozen people, along with the officers. He was near home; he recognized some faces.

One of the officers in an affidavit gave an account that in its initial stages concurred with Collier's: The Scorpion officers were on routine patrol when they saw him with no seat belt. When they ran the license plate, it came back as indicating that the car was associated with warrants for a suspended license and various traffic infractions.

The statement also described the foot chase, saying that officers were able to catch up to Collier but that he resisted their efforts to handcuff him, balling his fists and flexing his arms, and that one officer subdued Collier using pepper spray.

In a video Collier supplied to the Times, he could be seen on the ground, having slipped, with one of the officers on his back. He was already on the pavement and not resisting when he was pepper sprayed, he said. "When I'm on the ground and he's on my back, what's the point of pepper spraying me?"

He faced several charges, including evading arrest and violating the seat-belt law, plus the pending domestic violence case. He recalled serving a night in jail.

When Collier watched the videos of Nichols' arrest - the kicks and blows he suffered after he tried to run, the pepper spray in his face - it felt familiar.

"It didn't shock me whatsoever," Collier said. "If they would have caught me by myself, they would have done me the same way."

© 2023 The New York Times Company


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