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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis


Disbanded? Former SCORPION Officers Reappear In Similar Unit

Police reform advocates say MPD’s disbanding of SCORPION unit is a ‘PR Stunt’

Memphis Police Department supervisors on the scene of Tyre Nichols’s beating on Jan. 7. (MPD video still)

Critics and supporters alike applauded last month when the Memphis Police Department shut down its controversial SCORPION unit following the beating death of motorist Tyre Nichols.

But an internal MPD memo shows 30 former SCORPION patrol officers and five commanders didn’t move far when they were transferred on Jan. 28. Though SCORPION already was affiliated with MPD’s larger Organized Crime Unit, all 35 of those officers were transferred to other parts of OCU, according to the memo obtained by the Institute for Public Service Reporting.

The development troubles police reform advocates. They contend OCU, a multimillion-dollar unit that aims to suppress illegal drugs, vice and violent crime, employs many of the same aggressive SCORPION-style “zero tolerance” tactics that lead to volatile confrontations and the unnecessary jailing of mostly young Black men.

“MPD ‘s decision to disband SCORPION sounds more like a face-saving PR stunt than a recognition of any problems or need to change,’’ said Meaghan Ybos, executive director of People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws.

The reform organization contends MPD misapplies resources, choosing not to pursue rapists while waging a fruitless war on drugs that racks up thousands of low-level arrests that victimize minority neighborhoods and contribute to mass incarceration.

“By reassigning the SCORPION members within the OCU, MPD has simply moved them within the same special unit they were working in before. Remaining in the OCU, they will continue to deploy the same aggressive street-level tactics that SCORPION used, and they will still be subject to different rules than the rest of MPD,’’ Ybos said.

One of those different rules is that plainclothes OCU detectives are not required to wear body cameras, the video devices that promote transparency when police interact with citizens.

MPD did not respond to three separate emails seeking comment.

Reform activists monitoring electronic court records through a process known as web scraping say former SCORPION patrolmen appear to have made few arrests since the unit was scrapped. It was unclear if that involved a quirk in the electronic system or if the officers indeed were inactive.

One report dated Feb. 8, however, shows two former SCORPION officers making a drug arrest after pulling over a motorist for driving a car with tinted windows, a tactic often used by SCORPION. It was unclear if the officers were patrolling in unmarked cars as SCORPION did.

The internal memo obtained by The Institute is a document called a Special Order. Dated Feb. 9 and signed by Deputy Chief Sharonda Hampton, it lists more than 100 officers who have either resigned, retired, taken military leave or who have been terminated or have transferred from one MPD unit or precinct to another since Dec. 26.

Preston Hemphill receives a certificate last summer from Deputy Chief Don Crowe. (MPD)

Among two on the roster listed as terminated is Preston Hemphill, 26, one of six former SCORPION officers fired in connection with the Jan. 7 beating of Nichols, who died three days later in a hospital.

Hemphill has not been charged with any crimes. Each of the other five terminated officers has been charged with a range of offenses, including second-degree murder. For reasons unexplained, those five don’t appear on the Special Order.

The Special Order also lists a property and evidence room employee as terminated on Jan. 24. The order, which is simply a list of transfers, does not state why.

The listing of transfers also provides the first public accounting of supervisors in the now-disbanded SCORPION, which stood for Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods.

Among the transferred ex-SCORPION supervisors is Major Willie Mathena, 51, a 26-year MPD veteran, and Lt. DeWayne Smith, 55, a 25-year veteran who oversaw SCORPION’s Team One that included Hemphill and the other five fired officers.

A portion of the Feb. 9 Special Order transferring SCORPION officers to OCU

Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis has said SCORPION and MPD overall suffered from “supervisory gaps.” She recently told a Memphis TV news crew that MPD needs another 150 supervisors.

According to the Special Order, however, SCORPION’s supervision ranks appeared well-populated. The order lists four lieutenants for 30 patrol officers, or a ratio of about one to eight.

MPD said a Jan. 28 announcement that it scrapped SCORPION not because it wasn’t considered successful, but because Nichols’ beating death had “cast a cloud’’ over its operations.   

“In the process of listening intently to the family of Tyre Nichols, community leaders and the uninvolved officers who have done quality work in their assignments, it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the SCORPION Unit,’’ the MPD announcement said.

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

Web scraping by People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws and another criminal justice reform organization, Just City, reveal only a handful of arrests since Jan. 28 by the 30 former SCORPION patrol officers.

One of those arrests came on Feb. 8, when former SCORPION officers Sheridan Cross and James Hoppers stopped a gold Lexus in North Memphis with “darkly tinted front windows.’’ They then arrested a 45-year-old woman after finding methamphetamines and fentanyl in the car, according to a police arrest affidavit.

Both Cross and Hoppers hold the position of patrol officer II. But as was the case when they worked with SCORPION they are listed in the latest affidavit as detectives. SCORPION’s precise relationship to OCU has not been fully explained. Numbers of reports listed SCORPION as an operation of OCU. Additionally, at least one of the officers who stopped Nichols on Jan. 7 wore a dark hoodie bearing OCU’s logo.

“OCU uses the same tactics that the Scorpion unit was using, which is they use pretextual traffic stops,’’ said Chelsea Glass, an organizer with DeCarcerate Memphis.

The Supreme Court has ruled that pretextual stops are legal as long as officers have probable cause to believe a traffic offense has occurred. Yet civil rights activists say the practice often leads to abuse and discrimination.  

“It’s a mass harassment of residents all across the city,’’ Glass said. “They call this sophisticated, high-end policing. And it’s not. It’s just like casting a wide net and seeing what they catch over and over and over again. I mean, it’s a total violation of people’s rights, their privacy and their safety.’’

Just City executive director Josh Spickler said he’s concerned that the former SCORPION officers appear to be engaging in similar tactics now.

“If it’s anything like what SCORPION was doing, it’s bad and it’s very dangerous,’’ he said. “And it has to be controlled and there has to be oversight.”

Spickler said he was unsure why arrests by former SCORPION officers appear to have slowed to a trickle.

“It could be a few things. It could be that they have been assigned to desk duty … somewhere in the department where they’re not making arrests,’’ he said. “It could be that the information stream has been adjusted. There’s really no way to know from where I sit.”

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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