Memphis police officers watched as a man with a handgun bulging from his right hip walked past them and into a convenience store where he attempted to make a purchase.
It was busy that Friday night in Parkway Village, the day before several of these same officers would become entangled in a deadly encounter with Tyre Nichols – a violent altercation that resulted in the 29-year-old motorist’s death in a hospital bed three days later.
The action grew intense – and violent – on this night, too.
Members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION Team One swooped onto this gas station parking lot when they saw some young men loitering about.
After witnessing what they believed was a drug transaction, officers chased down one man and, during a struggle, pepper-sprayed him. They arrested another man who, like Nichols, had no criminal record. Carrying a pistol in his belt, he apparently violated the edges of Tennessee’s permitless carry law by entering a business displaying signs that guns are prohibited.
“Suspect … refused to cooperate and listen to detectives and immediately started screaming,’’ Officer Demetrius Haley wrote in a report charging the 22-year-old man with misdemeanor offenses of disorderly conduct and unlawfully possessing a gun.
An investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting found that Haley and four other officers terminated by MPD last week in connection with Nichols’ death were affiliated with a special unit called SCORPION, a data-driven initiative that identifies crime hotspots and attempts to suppress them with saturation patrols.
Records show the unit’s aggressive tactics often trigger volatile interactions with members of the public.
Launched in 2021 by MPD Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis as part of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s war on crime, the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION, unit identifies upticks in motor vehicle theft and violent crime and then targets those areas with patrolling SCORPION officers – at times in unmarked cars. An MPD video promoting the unit appears to show some of the officers dressed in plainclothes.
Discussing SCORPION in a January 2022 address, Strickland said the unit of “four, 10-man teams” had made 566 arrests in its first three months alone, seizing more than “$103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons.”
The mayor said then the unit targets homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and carjackings.
Yet dozens of reports reviewed by the Institute for Public Service Reporting found SCORPION officers also appear to engage in “zero-tolerance” or “proactive policing”-type activities, at times stopping motorists for tinted windows or for failing to wear seat belts and confronting or arresting others for loitering, gambling, drug possession and other low-level offenses – controversial tactics now at the heart of a national debate on how best to balance public safety and community trust.
A thorough analysis of SCORPION’s activities was not possible on deadline for this story. Some reports show officers removing dangerous individuals from the streets. Policy experts warn, however, that such aggressive tactics, if not properly supervised, can lead to discrimination and abuse, and can erode faith in police.
“They can be very effective,’’ said former Memphis Police Director E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman. “But they must be very closely controlled and monitored.
“The danger is exactly what happened in this case,’’ he said, referring to the death of Nichols.
SCORPION’s path to Nichols
It’s unclear if the Jan. 7 traffic stop of Nichols involved a formal SCORPION action, but reports obtained by The Institute chronicling arrests over the past year list all five of the terminated officers as officers working in SCORPION details.
Those officers are: Haley and Tadarrius Bean, both hired in August 2020; Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith, both hired in March 2018; and Desmond Mills Jr., hired in March 2017.
The five were initially suspended, and later fired, following the encounter with Nichols during a traffic stop near Ross and Raines roads in Memphis’ Hickory Hill area. Authorities have provided few details. MPD said Nichols was stopped for reckless driving before fleeing on foot following an encounter with officers. A second confrontation reportedly occurred when officers attempted to arrest Nichols.
A picture later released by his family showed his severely swollen face as he lay in a bed at Saint Francis Hospital, where he died Jan. 10.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the FBI have launched investigations. Officials have said they will release video of the incident soon.
Asked Wednesday about the connection of the five fired officers to SCORPION and for details about the unit’s activities and supervision protocols, an MPD spokesman declined comment.
“At this point we are not conducting any interviews. All statements and information will be released via our social media platforms,’’ spokesman Christopher Williams said in an emailed statement.
Speaking to the public in a video statement Wednesday night, Chief Davis said other officers remain under investigation in connection with Nichols’s death, vowing to launch “a complete and independent review … on all of the Memphis Police Department’s specialized units.’’
“This is not just a professional failing,’’ Davis said. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.’’
Records show the five fired officers operated on SCORPION’s Team One, patrolling hotspots throughout the city. Often, their actions led to volatile confrontations.
Such an event happened Sept. 20 when members of Team One spotted a Cadillac CTS with an expired temporary tag in Memphis’s Douglass community. When officers attempted to stop the vehicle, it made “a quick evasive maneuver”, a report said. The team then “set up a perimeter’’ and pursed the vehicle. The report lists now-fired officers Martin, Mills and Bean as detectives participating in the action.
One member of the team, Det. Wann Reed, “performed mobile surveillance on the silver Cadillac in an unmarked car,’’ the report said, noting that as he “was following the vehicle he observed the vehicle run red lights at Jackson and Hollywood and Springdale and Chelsea. Detective Reed also paced the vehicle at 70 mph in 30 mph zone while traveling northbound on Springdale’’ before coming to a stop at Hyde Park and Chelsea where three suspects then fled on foot. Available records list the apprehension of just one of them.
Though MPD policy prohibits high-speed pursuits unless a violent felony is suspected, court records documenting the three-mile chase list the arrest of a 20-year-old suspect with no criminal history who was charged with five misdemeanors. Four were later dismissed. A single charge of evading arrest remains.
SCORPION detectives engaged in another pursuit on Nov. 19 after spotting another Cadillac CTS “in violation of several traffic laws including headlight violation and illegal tinting.’’ According to a report: The five-mile pursuit ended when the car stopped on the shoulder of Interstate 40 near Whitten Road. The car backed into Det. Martin as he stood behind it. He received minor injuries. Two suspects then fled on foot across I-40.
Officers caught the driver, Darious Turner, 44, who has a long criminal history that includes a felony theft conviction. He now faces aggravated assault and other charges.
Some of the more than 50 police affidavits inspected by The Institute involve arrests at apartment complexes participating in the District Attorney’s anti-trespassing program, some initiated after officers said they smelled the odor of marijuana emanating from vehicles or attempted to disperse groups of people. One report from August describes a melee in which SCORPION officers skirmished with a crowd of 60 people.
Reports show SCORPION has been active all over the city, patrolling hotel parking lots downtown to remove or arrest loiters, patrolling Summer Avenue, where a 56-year-old man who reportedly was too intoxicated to get up from the ground was hauled off to jail, and arresting a 22-year-old man spotted in a Dodge Charger with “heavily dark tinted windows” parked in front of a Park Avenue business. In the latter case, the suspect was found with a handgun and drugs, an affidavit says.
The risks of aggressive policing
Arrest reports show the five now-fired officers were on assignment in Parkway Village the day before the Jan. 7 incident involving Nichols.
An arrest affidavit signed by Bean shows he, Mills and Smith were in the parking lot of a Marathon convenience store on Friday, Jan. 6, about five miles from the scene of the Nichols traffic stop when they witnessed what they believed was a drug transaction.
“Detectives were on the lot of … a high drug area when Detective Bean and Detective Mills observed two male blacks outside of the store make a possible hand-to-hand transaction,’’ the affidavit says.
When the three detectives tried to stop one of the men, he led them on a foot chase that ended with the officers spraying the man with a chemical agent “to effect the arrest,’’ the affidavit says. The 32-year-old man was charged with resisting and evading arrest. He was also taken into custody on outstanding warrants for theft and marijuana possession.
Later that night on the same lot, Team One detective Haley arrested a 22-year-old man who had a Taurus pistol in his waistband when he tried to make a purchase inside the store. Haley wrote in a report that he restrained the man and took him to jail because his screaming was keeping others from “being able to shop peacefully’’ and he wanted to “prevent the offense from continuing’’ With no criminal history in Shelby County courts and facing two misdemeanors, the man was later released from jail without bond.
For reform advocate Josh Spickler, these types of zero-tolerance tactics make saturation patrols seem more like an occupying force than the work of a police department that aims to protect and serve.
“It is very clearly meant to be a show of force, to be a clear exercise of authority in a neighborhood. And this idea that you can somehow go into a neighborhood and identify bad people and remove them from the neighborhood, that is not going to bring us anything close to the kind of safety and security that we want in our community,’’ said Spickler, executive director of the nonprofit criminal justice reform organization, Just City.
Sweeping up people in broad net simply doesn’t work, he said.
“It’s only going to continue to divide. It’s going to continue to result in outcomes like we’ve seen with Tyre Nichols.”
Fall 2021: The Memphis Police Department launches its SCORPION unit, or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, a unit comprising four 10-person teams of officers to reduce violent crime in certain neighborhoods throughout the city.
Jan. 26, 2022: Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says SCORPION has made 566 arrests and seized hundreds of weapons and vehicles since the unit started.
Jan. 6, 2023: SCORPION detectives are active in the Parkway Village-Hickory Hill area where Tyre Nichols is later stopped. They make arrests in a “high-drug area” near Winchester and Outland, pepper-spraying one man who had fled on foot.
Jan. 7, 2023: Tyre Nichols is pulled over by officers for alleged reckless driving. He is admitted to Saint Francis Hospital for injuries. Five SCORPION detectives are suspended in connection with the incident. Jan. 10, 2023: Nichols succumbs to his injuries and dies at St. Francis.
Jan. 20, 2023: MPD fires the five SCORPION detectives for violations of department policies, including excessive use of force, duty to intervene and duty to render aid.
Former Memphis Police Director Chapman said he favors such proactive measures but only if they are tightly supervised and monitored.
“These types of initiatives – zero tolerance – are inherently risky,’’ said Chapman, who served as police director from 1976 to 1983 and currently serves as executive director of CrimeStoppers of Memphis and Shelby County.
“And that’s why you need this kind of close supervision to make sure they don’t go over the line.”
The nonprofit public policy think tank the RAND Corporation warns against broad-net measures such as stopping, questioning and possibly frisking pedestrians and motorists whom police consider suspicious and then arresting them for low-level offenses.
“A defining difference between zero tolerance interventions and other strategies is that zero tolerance strategies are not discerning; the focus is on making stops and arrests to crack down on all types of disorder, generically defined,’’ RAND says on its Better Policing Toolkit web page. “… Being proactive in preventing crime does not (and should not) simply mean zero tolerance and aggressive policing.’’
RAND instead favors strategies such as “focused deterrence” including intervening with high-risk groups and individuals such as known gang members with histories of violence.
Chapman called it “very disturbing” that a traffic offense would wind up with someone dead and said he agreed every officer involved should be held accountable. Authorities have not spelled out specific roles that each of the five fired officers allegedly played in Nichols’ death. MPD cited a variety of infractions in a release last week, including excessive use of force, failure to intervene and failure to render aid.
Chapman said the police department’s role in the community should be “to protect and serve” and to apprehend people without punishing them.
“To protect and serve is a very perfect model. That is exactly what the police should be doing,’’ said Chapman, who worked with the U.S. Department of Justice to reform practices at MPD following excessive and deadly force cases such as the 1971 killing of Elton Hayes, a teenager beaten to death following a high-speed chase.
“But you have officers who interpret that as ‘to apprehend and beat up’ which is where we come off the track… I feel very strongly that police officers should never interpret their role as one of meting out consequences.’’