The Memphis police chief disbanded the city’s “Scorpion” unit on Saturday, citing a “cloud of dishonor” from newly released video that showed some of its officers beating Tyre Nichols to death after stopping the Black motorist.
Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis acted a day after the harrowing video emerged, saying she listened to Nichols’ relatives, community leaders and uninvolved officers in making the decision. Her announcement came as the nation and the city struggled to come to grips with the violence of the officers, who are also Black. The video renewed doubts about why fatal encounters with law enforcement keep happening despite repeated calls for change.
Protesters marching though downtown Memphis cheered when they heard the unit had been dissolved. One protester said over a bullhorn that “the unit that killed Tyre has been permanently disbanded.”
Referring to “the heinous actions of a few” that dishonored the unit, Davis contradicted an earlier statement that she would keep the unit. She said it was imperative that the department “take proactive steps in the healing process.”
“It is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the Scorpion unit,” she said in a statement. She said the officers currently assigned to it agreed “unreservedly.”
The unit is composed of three teams of about 30 officers whose stated aim is to target violent offenders in areas beset by high crime. It had been inactive since Nichols’ Jan. 7 arrest.
Scorpion stands for Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods.
In an interview Friday with The Associated Press, Davis said she would not shut down a unit if a few officers commit “some egregious act” and because she needs that unit to continue to work.
“The whole idea that the Scorpion unit is a bad unit, I just have a problem with that,” Davis said.
She became the first Black female chief in Memphis one year after George Floyd was killed at the hands of police. At the time, she was the Durham, North Carolina, police chief and responded by calling for sweeping police reform.
Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, lawyers for the Nichols family, said the move was “a decent and just decision for all citizens of Memphis.”
“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,” they said.
The disbanding was announced as the nation and the city struggled to come to grips with video showing police pummeling the Black motorist.
The footage released Friday left many unanswered questions about the traffic stop involving Nichols and about other law enforcement officers who stood by as he lay motionless on the pavement.
The five disgraced former Memphis Police Department officers, who are also Black, have been fired and charged with murder and other crimes in Nichols’ death three days after the arrest.
The recording shows police savagely beating Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, for three minutes while screaming profanities at him in an assault that the Nichols family legal team has likened to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. Nichols calls out for his mother before his limp body is propped against a squad car and the officers exchange fist-bumps.
The five officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith — face up to 60 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.
Davis has said other officers are under investigation, and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said two deputies have been relieved of duty without pay while their conduct is investigated.
Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said the family would “continue to seek justice” and noted that several other officers failed to render aid, making them “just as culpable as the officers who threw the blows.”
A Memphis police spokeswoman declined to comment on the role played by other officers who showed up at the scene.
Rodney Wells, Nichols’ stepfather, said the family would “continue to seek justice and get some more officers arrested.” He said several others failed to render aid, making them “just as culpable as the officers who threw the blows.”
Canadian police chiefs speak out on Tyre Nichols’ death
Cities nationwide had braced for demonstrations, but the protests were scattered and nonviolent. In Memphis, several dozen demonstrators blocked the Interstate 55 bridge that carries traffic over the Mississippi River toward Arkansas. Semitrucks were backed up for a distance.
Demonstrators at times blocked traffic while chanting slogans and marching through the streets of New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. In Washington, protesters gathered across the street from the White House and near Black Lives Matter Plaza.
Memphis remained on edge. Ahead of the protests, some downtown Memphis businesses boarded up windows, and the school system cancelled after-school activities. Memphis-Shelby County Schools, which has about 100,000 students, postponed athletics and extracurricular activities on Saturday.
“I cried,” said protester Christopher Taylor, a Memphis native who said the officers appeared to be laughing as they stood around after the beating.
Blake Ballin, the lawyer for fired officer Desmond Mills, told The Associated Press in a statement Saturday that while the videos “have produced as many questions as they have answers,” the question of whether the city would stay peaceful “has been answered.”
Some of the other questions will focus on what Mills “knew and what he was able to see when he arrived late to the scene” and whether his actions “crossed the lines that were crossed by other officers during this incident,” Ballin said.
The recording shows police savagely beating Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, for three minutes while screaming profanities at him throughout the attack. The Nichols family legal team has likened the assault to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.
Questions swirled around what led to the traffic stop in the first place. One officer can be heard saying that Nichols wouldn’t stop and then swerved as though he intended to hit the officer’s car. The officer said that when Nichols pulled up to a red light, the officers jumped out of the car.
“We tried to get him to stop,” the officer sad. “He didn’t stop.”
But Davis said the department cannot substantiate the reason for the stop.
“We don’t know what happened,” she said, adding, “All we know is the amount of force that was applied in this situation was over the top.”
On the video, officers can be seen holding Nichols down and repeatedly striking him with their fists, boots and batons as the Black motorist screamed for his mother.
The video is filled with violent moments showing the officers chasing Nichols and leaving him on the pavement propped against a squad car as they fist-bump and celebrate their actions.
After the first officer roughly pulls Nichols out of a car, Nichols can be heard saying, “I didn’t do anything,” as a group of officers begins to wrestle him to the ground.
One officer is heard yelling, “Tase him! Tase him!”
Nichols calmly says, “OK, I’m on the ground.”
“You guys are really doing a lot right now,” Nichols says. “I’m just trying to go home.”
“Stop, I’m not doing anything!” he yells moments later.
Nichols can then be seen running as an officer fires a Taser at him. His mother’s home, where he lived, was only a few houses away from the scene of the beating, and his family said he was trying to get there. The officers then start chasing Nichols.
Other officers are called, and a search ensues before Nichols is caught at another intersection. The officers beat him with a baton, and kick and punch him.
Security camera footage shows three officers surrounding Nichols as he lies in the street cornered between police cars, with a fourth officer nearby.
Two officers hold Nichols to the ground as he moves about, and then the third appears to kick him in the head. Nichols slumps more fully onto the pavement with all three officers surrounding him. The same officer kicks him again.
The fourth officer then walks over, draws a baton and holds it up at shoulder level as two officers hold Nichols upright, as if he were sitting.
His body camera shows him raise his baton while at least one other officer holds Nichols. The officer strikes Nichols on the back with the baton three times in a row.
The other officers then appear to hoist Nichols to his feet, with him flopping like a doll, barely able to stay upright.
An officer then punches him in the face, as the officer with the baton continues to menace him. Nichols stumbles and turns, still held up by two officers. The officer who punched him then walks around to Nichols’ front and punches him four more times. Then Nichols collapses.
Two officers can then be seen atop Nichols on the ground, with a third nearby, for about 40 seconds. Three more officers then run up, and one can be seen kicking Nichols on the ground.
As Nichols is slumped up against a car, not one of the officers renders aid. The body camera footage shows a first-person view of one of them reaching down and tying his shoe.
It takes more than 20 minutes after Nichols is beaten and on the pavement before any sort of medical attention is provided, even though two fire department officers arrived on the scene with medical equipment within 10 minutes.
During the wait for an ambulance, officers joked and aired grievances. They complained that a handheld radio was ruined, that someone lost a flashlight and that multiple officers had been caught in the crossfire of the pepper spray used against Nichols.
Throughout the videos, officers make claims about Nichols’ behaviour that are not supported by the footage or that the district attorney and other officials have said did not happen. In one of the videos, an officer claims that during the initial traffic stop Nichols reached for the officer’s gun before fleeing and almost had his hand on the handle, which is not shown in the video.
After Nichols is in handcuffs and leaning against a police car, several officers say that he must have been high. Later an officer says no drugs were found in his car, and another officer immediately counters that Nichols must have ditched something while he was running away.
During a speech Saturday in Harlem, the Rev. Al Sharpton said the beating was particularly egregious because the officers were Black, too.
“Your Blackness will not stop us from fighting you. These five cops not only disgraced their names, they disgraced our race,” Sharpton said.