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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Watchdog

Police Lieutenant Led SCORPION Officers Despite Earlier Struggles

Lt. Dewayne Smith’s “conflicting” testimony led to dismissal of federal drug case

Reginald Monroe stands on the Watkins Street bridge over Cypress Creek where he fell 60 feet in 2016 while fleeing from police following an illegal search of his car. (Brad Vest)

A lieutenant who oversaw the five Memphis Police Department officers accused of killing Tyre Nichols once was suspended for a domestic disturbance and gave “unreliable” testimony that caused a federal judge to dismiss charges in a felony drug case.

Inconsistent testimony by Lt. Dewayne Smith and a second MPD officer led to the dismissal of charges against Reginald Monroe, a former barber and father of three who faced years in prison following his arrest in 2016. The officers stopped Monroe for driving with tinted windows and then conducted what a judge later determined was an illegal search of his car.

“I was praying to God. Because, at the end of the day, God knows my heart and knows that I wasn’t doing (anything with a) malicious intent,’’ Monroe, 48, told the Institute for Public Service Reporting on Monday.

“I was going to get my son … and I wasn’t bothering anybody,’’ said Monroe, who contends police found a relative’s illegal contraband in his trunk after searching his car without his consent.  

U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays dismissed the four-count indictment accusing Monroe of drug and firearms violations after concluding that Smith and officer Josh Myers, then both detectives with MPD’s Organized Crime Unit, had violated Monroe’s Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure.

Testimony in the case also revealed that Smith had been disciplined in the past for a domestic incident and for unnecessary use of force.

A transcript of an Aug. 25, 2017, suppression hearing shows when asked by Assistant Federal Public Defender Tyrone Paylor if he had “received a 15-day suspension for an incident investigated by Internal Affairs involving a domestic violence situation,’’ Smith responded, “Yes sir.’’ And when Paylor asked if Smith had also “received a sanction from Internal Affairs for unnecessary use of force against a citizen,” Smith responded, “Yes sir.”

Records detailing those disciplinary actions were unavailable Tuesday.

Lt. Dewayne Smith, right, on the scene of the Jan. 7 beating of Tyre Nichols. (MPD video still)

Asked about his testimony and the domestic incident, Smith declined comment.

“You can check with the PIO (public information officer) office. They’ll tell you what you need,” Smith, 55, a 25-year MPD veteran, told a reporter through a smart doorbell device at his home in Whitehaven. “I don’t want to, you know, overstep the police department.”

MPD Major Karen Rudolph confirmed that Smith was part of SCORPION, but said she was unaware of the federal case involving him and the unlawful search and seizure. She provided few details about the domestic incident that led to disciplinary action, but said it happened more than 20 years ago.

“Smith was not prosecuted for an assault (DV); however, relative to this incident (in 1999), he received a 15 days suspension for violation of MPD’s personal conduct regulation,” Rudolph told the Institute for Public Service Reporting in an emailed statement.

“Smith was promoted through the promotional process that is mandated by the Union MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) and city charter. Yes, Smith was a lieutenant over the SCORPION Unit prior to it being deactivated.”

Asked in a follow-up email about the use-of-force allegation and for details about his supervisory role with SCORPION, Rudolph said in an emailed response:

“You can file an open records request for Lt. Smith’s personnel file if you would like to review details relative to any sustained charges and for his photo.  There is no additional information available at this point (regarding) the Nichols incident.” 

Records show Smith was one of four lieutenants assigned to MPD’s controversial SCORPION unit created in 2021 by Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis in answer to Mayor Jim Strickland’s mandate to reduce violent crime. The special unit, which saturated crime “hot spots” with officers patrolling in unmarked cars, was disbanded last month after five of its members were charged with second-degree murder following the beating death of Nichols.

Body camera footage shows Lt. Smith at the scene of the Jan. 7 beating shortly after the fatal encounter between Nichols, 29, and the five officers. Smith can be seen talking with other officers as Nichols lay on the pavement nearby in handcuffs.

The value of SCORPION’s “hot spot’’ or “proactive policing’’ tactics has been widely debated following the incident that started when officers patrolling in unmarked Dodge Chargers stopped Nichols for alleged reckless driving. Bodycam footage shows an officer yelling at Nichols to get out of his car and then opening Nichols’s driver-side door and physically pulling the motorist out of the car.

Critics say SCORPION’s aggressive, “zero-tolerance’’ approach in largely Black neighborhoods was discriminatory and dangerous, leading to numbers of volatile encounters and unnecessary arrests.

But records show MPD’s Organized Crime Unit or OCU has been deploying such tactics for years, stopping motorists for driving with tinted windows, expired license plates, improper turns and other pretextual reasons in hopes of intercepting drugs and guns.

Smith and partner Myers made such a stop on the afternoon of Aug. 17, 2016, when they pulled over Monroe as he was on his way to pick his son up from preschool in Frayser. Myers later said in a sworn affidavit that the officers suspected Monroe’s red Honda Accord had “windows darker than the legal limit’’ though tests later showed it didn’t.

Reginald Monroe points toward the spot where police pulled him over in an unmarked car in 2016. (Brad Vest)

“They pulled me over right here,’’ Monroe said Monday, pointing toward the intersection of Watkins and McNeil in North Memphis.

Monroe described how he decided to flee on foot from what he considered a classic example of police harassment before cutting through a yard, hopping a fence, and then tumbling 60 feet down an embankment into the waist-deep waters of Cypress Creek. He was treated for minor injuries.

“They’re making arrests, but they are doing the arrests illegally,’’ said Monroe, describing how aggressive policing undercuts trust in Black neighborhoods.

“That’s what’s going on. It’s like they’re violating your rights. They’re violating your rights because (police are) just doing this in certain neighborhoods. You’re not doing this all over Memphis. You’re just doing this in certain neighborhoods.’’

Reginald Monroe in North Memphis earlier this week. (Brad Vest)

OCU detectives Smith and Myers were patrolling that day in an unmarked car. They described it as a Ford Explorer but Monroe recalled it as a Dodge Durango SUV.

The officers contended in their original reports that Monroe “jumped out and ran from the vehicle” when they pulled him over in North Memphis on suspicion of violating Tennessee’s tinted window law.

But they later testified that Monroe had consented to let them search his car after they smelled the odor of marijuana – statements found to be unreliable by Magistrate Judge Diane K. Vescovo, who presided over a hearing held on Monroe’s motion to suppress evidence in the case.

“However, the testimony regarding the smell of marijuana is troubling,’’ Vescovo wrote in a report to the court recommending that evidence in the case be suppressed.

“Although Detectives Myers and Smith both testified that they smelled an odor of marijuana emanating from Monroe’s vehicle as they approached, they did not state in either the Affidavit of Complaint or the Incident Report that they detected the odor of marijuana, nor was there any testimony they communicated their observation to each other or to Monroe.”

More troubling yet for Judge Mays was “conflicting’’ testimony by Smith.

“At the suppression hearing, Detective Smith made conflicting statements about whether Monroe had given consent to search,’’ Mays wrote in a May 1, 2018, order granting Monroe’s motion to suppress.

On direct examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Elizabeth Rogers, Smith testified that Myers had “asked Mr. Monroe if [he] could take a look in the vehicle and he agreed to a search of the vehicle and he stepped out.’’

However, on cross examination, Smith said he didn’t know if Myers had asked for consent because he was out of earshot.

“And you don’t know whether or not Mr. Monroe told Officer Myers he could search the car or not because you didn’t hear it, right?’’ defense attorney Paylor asked.

“Right,’’ Smith answered.

Vescovo found that the officers had violated Monroe’s Fourth Amendment right against unlawful search and seizure. Her recommendations were adopted by Judge Mays, leading his to dismiss the case against Monroe.

How Smith rose to become a lieutenant supervising SCORPION officers remains unclear. As recently as August 2021 he was listed in city pay records as a sergeant, a rank generally associated with detectives. Records obtained by the Institute for Public Service Reporting list Smith as one of four lieutenants assigned to SCORPION, which stands for Street Crime Operations to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods.

Chief 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 a Special Order obtained by The Institute, 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.

As for Monroe, who was convicted years ago of a drug offense and says he served time for a second-degree he didn’t commit – all as a young man in the 1990s – he said over-aggressive policing by MPD causes immense fear and anxiety in Black neighborhoods.

It’s like driving while Black. That’s what I thought. Or targeted. I was targeted,’’ he said, explaining why he fled that day. “And it’s like, okay, I was like I don’t know what they fixing to do, you know?

The rocky bottom of Cypress Creek, now much shallower than when Reginald Monroe fell in back in 2016. (Brad Vest)
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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