‘Cloud of dishonor’: Memphis Police SCORPION unit disbanded after Tyre Nichols’ death

Written by on January 28, 2023

The Memphis Police Department on Saturday announced it will “permanently deactivate” its SCORPION unit after officers in the unit were fired and face charges in the death of Tyre Nichols, according to a statement from Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis.

Memphis, Tennessee law enforcement officials released disturbing footage of the fatal police beating of Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who died three days after a traffic stop on Jan. 7. The video shows officers using a Taser on Nichols, hitting him with a baton and kicking and hitting him in the head.

The five officers charged in Nichols’ death are members of SCORPION, or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, the department confirmed.

“The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step,” the release says. “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.”

Here’s what to know:

BEN CRUMP APPLAUDS ‘SWIFT JUSTICE’:Experts say speed of charges was ‘unusual.’

FOOTAGE RELEASD:Video shows Memphis police violently beating Tyre Nichols in traffic stop

Family of Tyre Nichols demanded SCORPION unit be disbanded

Saturday’s news followed calls from Nichols’ family to dismantle the unit.

Antonio Romanucci, Nichols’ family attorney, said SCORPION and other specialized police units target the “most vulnerable” as he called on law enforcement agencies nationwide to examine their saturation units.

“These are suppression units,” he said. “These are saturation units. And what they really turn out to be are oppression units. And what they do is they wind up oppressing the people that we care about the most — our children, our young sons and daughters who are Black and brown — because they are the most vulnerable.”

POLITICIANS RESPOND:Politicians, activists decry Tyre Nichols fatal traffic stop after video’s release

This photo provided by the Nichols family shows Tyre Nichols, who had a passion for photography and was described by friends as joyful and lovable. Nichols was just minutes from his home in Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 7, 2023, when he was pulled over by police and fatally beaten. Five Memphis police officers have since been charged with second-degree murder and other offenses. (Courtesy of the Nichols family via AP)

Other cities’ specialized police units draw scrutiny, scandal 

Specialized police units have also drawn scrutiny elsewhere in the country in scandals spanning multiple decades:

PROTESTS NATIONWIDE:Protests in Memphis, Chicago, NYC; more expected after release of Tyre Nichols video

Why was the Memphis Police SCORPION launched?

Amid surging homicide rates, the Memphis Police Department launched SCORPION in late 2021 as a 40-person unit with teams in so-called “hot spots” for crime, according to a video announcing the unit’s launch.

Two months after the launch, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland applauded the unit in his state of the city address, claiming the team was responsible for 566 arrests between October 2021 and Jan. 23, 2022.

Why specialized units can morph into ‘uncontrolled policing’ 

Philip Stinson, criminal justice professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said the purpose of saturation units is often to make police presence known and intimidate residents by “swarming into an area, being visible and taking quick action to make many arrests.”

But Stinson said these specialized units are “troubling in many ways” because they may “have a lot of aspects of street justice, a lot of aspects of uncontrolled policing.”

In surveillance footage, officers involved in the killing of Nichols appear to be wearing “quasi military-type uniforms” rather than typical police uniforms, and some of their vehicles appear to be unmarked, Stinson said.

If officers are in plainclothes or use unmarked cars, they “may feel they have cover of anonymity in order to conduct misdeeds,” said Keith Taylor, adjunct assistant professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Specialized units may feel ‘untouchable’ and need more supervision, experts say

The celebration of specialized units may make many of its members feel “untouchable,” fueling issues with excessive use of force, said Duane T. Loynes Sr., professor of urban studies and Africana studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.

Taylor, a former New York Police Department assistant commissioner, said specialized units are needed in some cases, but need to be supervised carefully. “When you don’t have the supervision, you can have deadly consequences.”

Hans Menos of the California-based Center for Policing Equity also said the SCORPION team may have been acting with little oversight and targeting communities of color.

Davis acknowledged the police department has a supervisor shortage and said city officials have pledged to provide more of them.

“The lack of supervision in this incident was a major problem,” Davis said.

Contributing: Laura Testino, the Commercial Apeal; Craig Shoup, Nashville Tennessean; Rick Jervis and Jessica Guynn, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

Contact Christine Fernando at cfernando@usatoday.com or follow her on Twitter at @christinetfern.

Current track



Current show


3:00 pm 5:00 pm

Current show


3:00 pm 5:00 pm