When Memphis, a city in southwest Tennessee, had 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 Launched!” read a post on the department’s Facebook page, along with a video clip showing a group of officers in tactical vests at a roll call.
The name stands for the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods – yet officers from that same unit were responsible for the brutal assault of Tyre Nichols this month during a traffic stop for alleged reckless driving.
Warning: This article contains violent images
“The Scorpion unit was involved,” Steve Mulroy, the District Attorney for Shelby County, Tennessee, confirmed on Thursday when he announced the murder charges against five officers.
Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who has called the attack “heinous, reckless and inhumane”, announced on Saturday that after “listening intently” to Nichols’ relatives, community leaders and uninvolved officers, she felt “it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the Scorpion unit.”
A unit designed for ‘crime suppression’
The Scorpion unit was created in October 2021 under the police department’s Organised Crime Unit after a record 346 homicides were reported in 2021 – up from 332 the previous year.
Made up of 40 officers divided into four 10-member teams, the unit was tasked with addressing violent crime and investigating car thefts and gangs.
In January last year, Mayor Jim Strickland promoted the unit as part of the solution to the high homicide rate, stating that in its first three months, it had made hundreds of arrests and seized hundreds of cars and weapons.
Its operations were flaunted on the police department’s Facebook page: arrests that began with traffic stops, escalated into more serious confrontations and ended with arrests of people for drugs and guns.
‘Police do what they can to arrest people’
Mark LeSure, a former Memphis police sergeant who retired in 2021, said he had begun to see a large number of relatively inexperienced officers being put on specialised units as other members of the force quit.
Mr LeSure added that the units did not have enough senior staff members training the new officers.
“Rookies were getting put on specialised units where they had no business being,” he said.
Two of the five officers involved in the assault on Mr Nichols, who are aged between 24 and 32-years-old, had been on the job for a couple of years, and the others no more than six years.
Mr LeSure said some of his former colleagues who are still at the department have told him that the Scorpion unit, which launched after he retired, is known for having a “zero tolerance” policy on crime – which he said meant the officers “do what they can to arrest people”.
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Police initially said Mr Nichols had been stopped for reckless driving on 7 January and that a “confrontation” occurred in an effort to detain him.
However, Ms Davis said a review of the incident could not “substantiate” the reckless driving claim.
He died three days after the assault.
‘Unit is an excuse to harass everyday residents’
E. Winslow Chapman, the director of the police department from 1976 to 1983, said that when he was leading the force officers were not considered for specialised 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 criminal activity anymore… and it can very easily go overboard, which it obviously did in this case.”
Chelsea Glass, a community organiser in Memphis who is an advocate for criminal justice reform, called Scorpion a street crime-fighting team relying on traffic stops as excuses to find violent criminals and weapons.
“They harass everyday residents, and they’re calling this high-level policing,” he said.
“But it’s really just stop-and-frisk on wheels. It doesn’t matter what name you slap on it.”
What do we know about the officers?
The five officers have been charged with second-degree murder, official misconduct, aggravated kidnapping, official oppression and aggravated assault.
Here is what is known about each one.
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 accused of assaulting an inmate.
The lawsuit against him was dismissed as the inmate failed to complete all the paperwork.
Tadarrius Bean, 24
Bean was also hired in August 2020 having previously worked at a fast food restaurant and a telecoms company AT&T, according to his LinkedIn profile.
It says he studied criminal justice and law enforcement at the University of Mississippi from 2016 until 2020, and did an internship with the campus police department.
Emmitt Martin III, 30
Martin was hired by the Memphis Police Department in March 2018.
Joshua Harper, a pastor in Memphis, said he followed Martin on social media and that the man depicted in court papers “is not the person that I know”.
“I was shocked only for a second because I understood that he was a police officer and I know behind the badge that anything can happen when anyone has power and authority,” Harper said.
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 just shocked. I’ve been coaching a long time and you just never know. I told my wife, ‘That 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 bail and was released from custody Thursday night.