This article was published in partnership with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization covering the U.S. criminal justice system. Sign up for their newsletters, and follow them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Reginald Dean took a long pull on his cigarette and leaned against the wall near the sliding doors of the Dollar General just as the store was closing.
It was April of last year in a neighborhood not far from the airport. As Dean recounted it, he was waiting for a ride home with a friend, the store’s assistant manager, who was still inside counting the cash in the register before locking the doors.
Two Memphis police squad cars pulled into the parking lot. Within minutes, three officers began beating and kicking Dean, leaving blood on the concrete, according to store surveillance video his family obtained. One of them doused him with pepper spray, a police report said.
“I’ve been on this earth 31 years and never been arrested,” said Dean, a former Navy mechanic. “They had no reason to do this. And they’re out here doing this to people every day.”
Dean’s violent encounter with police happened months before Tyre Nichols died after police beat him during a traffic stop in January this year. The incident brought widespread scrutiny of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION unit, which was supposed to target violent crime. Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis disbanded the squad after critics said it frequently used heavy-handed and even unconstitutional tactics.
But the officers who beat Dean weren’t from SCORPION. They weren’t even from the Organized Crime Unit that SCORPION was part of. They were regular patrol officers.
An investigation by The Marshall Project and The Institute for Public Service Reporting found incidents of aggressive policing throughout the 1,900-member force.
A review of more than 200 arrest reports from spring of last year shows that rank-and-file officers, as well as SCORPION members, used aggressive methods in their encounters. Among them: stopping a vehicle because part of its temporary tag was “flapping in the wind,” chasing a man for “appearing to back away” as they approached, and detaining someone after he warned people in his neighborhood that plainclothes police were conducting an investigation.
The department’s own data indicates broad use of aggressive tactics. In 2021, Memphis police arrested nearly 15,000 people for violent and property crimes closely tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. That was almost twice as many people as police arrested that year in Nashville, which has 50,000 more residents.
The vast majority of people arrested in Memphis — 86% — were Black, a large overrepresentation, even in a city where 65% of residents are Black. Each year, the FBI collects crime data from law enforcement agencies across the country through the Uniform Crime Reporting System. The Marshall Project analyzed arrest data that Tennessee law enforcement agencies submitted from 2019 and 2021, which only includes arrests for “Group A Offenses,” an FBI classification used to track the most serious and the most common crimes.
The data also shows that Memphis leads the state in the percentage of Black people arrested on offenses usually associated with traffic stops, such as gun charges (95%) and drug possession (85%). Memphis police arrested more than 50,000 people from 2019 through 2021. The average age for White people was 33. For Black people, the average age was younger: 29, the same age as Nichols when he died.
In an emailed response to requests for comment, Memphis police did not address questions about arrest data.
The former president of the police union in Memphis, Mike Williams, said policing in the city has become more aggressive, but only in response to rising crime driven by a lack of respect for authority.
“We see people bashing into stores,” Williams said. “We see people abducting people in broad daylight. These individuals have become emboldened.”
Bad officers “need to be weeded out,’’ Williams said. “But at the same token, you know, how do we deal with the crime?’’
Lawmakers, advocates, and people like Dean, who have experienced police violence, say the solution is to stop routinely treating young Black men as criminals. Some people here complain that approach has left their communities scarred by fear and distrust of the police — and each other.
“In our city in general, we seem to have much more police in Black neighborhoods,” said City Council member JB Smiley Jr. “We keep selling it with the talking point that more police equals less crime, which is not necessarily true.”
Smiley has been calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to conduct a full-scale “pattern-or-practice” investigation of the Memphis police. The federal agency has announced a more limited examination of police de-escalation and use of force in Memphis.
Last week, the City Council passed a policing reform package in response to Nichols’ death that includes a measure limiting the use of unmarked cars in traffic stops except in “exigent circumstances,” such as excessive speeding that poses an imminent threat to life or property. The impact of the measure remains uncertain, however, as it has been included in a “consolidated” ordinance that still must receive final approval.
Police encounters like the one Dean had signal that officers throughout the ranks in Memphis feel empowered to use force without accountability, said Christopher Chapman, a former officer who is now a criminology professor at the City University of New York.
“When there are cases where officers can violate people’s rights, and supervisors aren’t stopping it, then it’s not a far jump to go from that to shooting people and beating them almost to death,” Chapman said.
City leaders in Memphis have for years insisted that the number of arrests and high incidence of police shootings are a function of the high crime rate in the city. Though the number of homicides in Memphis fell more than 10% last year, the city’s homicide rate still ranks high nationally.
But experts question the relationship between crime prevention and aggressive policing, noting that the city’s rates of homicide and other violent crimes remain high despite years of heavy policing.
And recent incidents have added to questions about overpolicing in Memphis. In February, police arrested a man for eating two bags of potato chips he picked up off the ground after they fell from a rack that another man had stolen from a convenience store.
Memphis has always been a city of disparities. Built on the banks of the Mississippi River with cotton barons’ money and Black labor, the city of 628,000 is home to great wealth — FedEx, AutoZone and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital are headquartered here — and crushing poverty. One in four residents lives at or below the poverty line, making Memphis one of the nation’s poorest cities.
A century ago, city leaders openly recruited members of the Ku Klux Klan to serve on the police force. A culture of police violence dominated the Jim Crow and civil rights eras, and many Black residents believe that legacy persists today — even though a majority of the city’s commissioned officers are Black.
Reginald Monroe, 48, knows that history all too well. On a chilly February morning in North Memphis, he rested a foot on the porch step of a home he’s renovating, a pile of cinder blocks behind him. He remembers officers jumping out of unmarked cars, harassing and arresting people in his neighborhood in the 1990s. He spent 11 years behind bars for second-degree murder, which he maintains was a wrongful conviction.
After Monroe resettled in Memphis, two officers stopped him in 2016, telling him the tint on his Honda’s windows was too dark. They searched his car and found a gun and some drugs. A judge dismissed charges against him, ruling that the officers did not have probable cause to stop him.
One of them went on to become a lieutenant in charge of the SCORPION unit implicated in Nichols’ death.
In Dean’s case, his arrest outside the Dollar General came while Memphis police were conducting “Operation Spring Cleaning,” one of several “proactive policing” initiatives the city carries out yearly. Though few who live in Memphis have ever heard of “Spring Cleaning” by name, Dean and other residents said they noticed a greater police presence in their neighborhoods between late February through early May, around the time of the initiative.
The police department has said the effort is designed to pick up people with open warrants and get guns, drugs and money tied to criminal activity off the streets. The Organized Crime Unit spearheaded the operations with help from patrol officers, a SWAT team and a multi-agency task force.
Policing experts said the name “Spring Cleaning” alone seems problematic.
“They actually call it that in public?” asked Chuck Rylant, a retired police officer and expert witness on use of force. “It sounds like taking out garbage. Not the kind of phrase that shows respect for the community.”
Spring Cleaning mirrors similar initiatives in cities in Florida, Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, and Georgia. Memphis’ version extends back to at least 2019, when Michael Rallings, then the head of the police department, saw it as a way to reverse rising crime. At a news conference in 2019, he said that Spring Cleaning and a later operation, “Summer Heat,” contributed to a 6% decrease in overall crime and a 7% decrease in violent crime, although he offered no data supporting those claims.
In their email, Memphis police said they have no plans to conduct Spring Cleaning operations this year.
The tactics from operations like Spring Cleaning have become commonplace in everyday policing in Memphis, said Keedran Franklin, an activist who also runs a food truck.
Just down the street from the store on Winchester Road where police officers beat Dean last year, Franklin recently talked while helping his chef prep plates of Memphis-style turkey ribs and fries at his truck, The Check-In.
The truck’s name is meant to encourage people to talk about their feelings and mental health, Franklin said. He asks visitors to give him one word to describe how they feel as they leave.
And lately, he said the word he’s been hearing from Black men, in particular, is “fear” — of police.
“I’ve traveled to a lot of places,” Franklin said. “And if I had to pick a place Memphis reminds me of, it’s Egypt. They had all these checkpoints there where you had to go through police. When you live here, it’s almost like living in a war zone.”
According to a police report, officers said Dean was loitering outside the store with a green satchel slung across his chest. They later said they stopped to check because of the previous robberies of Dollar Generals in the area, but Dean refused to give officers his name after he told them he was waiting for his friend.
In Tennessee, people do not have to show identification unless an officer suspects the person is engaged in criminal activity or has committed a crime. You do not need a permit to carry a gun, which Dean had in the satchel.
The officers who arrested Dean said he became belligerent, argued with one of the officers, and complained to customers leaving the store that police were harassing him. But Dean and the store’s assistant manager, 23-year-old Demasio Everett, said that couldn’t be true. Everett had already closed the store to the public by then, so there would be no customers for Dean to stop with his complaints.
“I came outside myself,” Everett said. “And I’m like ‘No, he’s cool, he’s a former worker, he’s just waiting on me.’ I tried my best to really tell them to go on about their way.”
Dean said he remained calm, but reiterated to the officers that he wasn’t doing anything wrong and had a right to be there. He said he asked several times for the officer to call a supervisor, and also asked for the officers’ badge numbers.
When he saw Everett closing the store’s gate, he said, he told the officers that they would be leaving and began to walk toward Everett’s van.
That’s when he said he felt the first blow to the back of his head. In the ensuing scuffle, Dean said police hit and kicked him several times, moves recorded in the store surveillance video.
They eventually charged him with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
Dean said he filed a complaint against the officers after he got out of jail, but hasn’t heard anything about its status.
Memphis police said Dean did not attend a meeting to file a formal complaint. “Efforts to follow up with Mr. Dean were made but were unsuccessful,” Major Karen Rudolph wrote in an email.
While Memphis police remain under a spotlight because of the Nichols case, men like Monroe and Dean say they fear that officers will go back to their old ways as soon as the national attention turns away.
Dean hopes to be out of the city by the time that happens.
“I’m going to leave,” he said. “I’m getting out of Memphis as soon as I can.”
Marshall Project data reporter Weihua Li contributed to this article.