This story has been updated to include fresh comments from MPD received Tuesday afternoon.
Eight weeks after five Memphis Police Department “SCORPION” officers allegedly beat motorist Tyre Nichols to death, the law enforcement agency is tweaking its leadership.
The department has shuffled roles at its highest level of management – the so-called Executive Command Staff – and within its lower supervisory ranks as well.
Deputy Chief Michael Hardy, who recently oversaw special operations that included the now-disbanded SCORPION unit, has received a new assignment: Deputy Chief for strategies and special projects.
Replacing him as Deputy Chief for special operations is Stephen Chandler, a helicopter pilot who recently served as a colonel commanding MPD’s North Main Station. He also made news in 2018 for his role in MPD’s controversial spying on political activists.
An MPD spokeswoman said Tuesday afternoon the new roles for Hardy and Chandler are unrelated to the SCORPION controversy, yet they are among several management changes at MPD in the weeks following the indictments of five former officers accused of second-degree murder in connection with the Jan. 7 beating of Nichols, 29.
Records obtained by the Institute for Public Service Reporting show:
- Willie Mathena, 51, a major who joined MPD in 1995 and oversaw the 35-member SCORPION unit, has been transferred to administration at MPD’s Austin Peay Station.
- Dewayne Smith, 55, a 25-year MPD veteran and one of four lieutenants assigned to SCORPION, retired on March 1.
Meantime, Deputy Chief Mike Shearin, 53, a 28-year veteran who headed investigative services, is no longer listed as a deputy chief on MPD’s website. Persons familiar with his situation said he, too, has retired. Major Karen Rudolph said Shearin was enrolled in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan and retired in December, before the SCORPION controversy erupted.
“Within any organization, there will be administrative changes; the Memphis Police Department is no different,” Rudolph said in an emailed statement. “As a result, the Memphis Police Department continuously evolves to ensure that the department and employees operate under competent leadership and best practices.”
Though Rudolph said the changes involving the Executive Command Staff and Major Mathena “had nothing to do with the SCORPION Unit incident”, she did not offer such a characterization regarding Lt. Smith.
“Additional information pertaining to Smith will be released tomorrow,” Rudolph said.
Police video shows Smith on the scene of the the Jan. 7 Nichols incident minutes after officers had placed the motorist in handcuffs. What role, if any, he played in the incident has not been officially explained. Smith declined a request by The Institute for an interview on Feb. 21. Efforts to reach him this week were unsuccessful.
Former Memphis Police Director E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman said management shakeups often follow major incidents that shake public confidence in police.
“They feel like you got to see some change,” said Chapman, who currently serves as executive director of CrimeStoppers of Memphis and Shelby County. “I mean, let’s face it. This thing, it was inexcusable from so many different aspects.”
The management shuffle comes as Memphis City Council prepares to vote today on six police reform measures, including two that would limit the use of pretextual traffic stops. Police records show members of SCORPION often drove in unmarked cars often and pulled over motorists in largely Black neighborhoods for minor infractions such as driving with tinted windows or expired tags or making improper turns.
The traffics stops were made in hopes of intercepting drugs and guns, but they often led to volatile encounters including high-speed chases that appeared to violate department policy.
One proposed ordinance would ban traffic stops by police in unmarked cars.
Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis launched SCORPION, which stands for Street Crime Operations to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods, in the fall of 2021 in response to rising violent crime.
The unit was disbanded in January following the indictment of five of its former members accused of beating Nichols to death following a traffic stop.
His death stirred wide protests.
MPD’s swift release of body camera footage and the quick firing and prosecution of officers involved in Nichols’s death have prompted nationwide praise.
The investigation continues, as does the ripple effects inside MPD.
MPD tweeted Chandler’s promotion to deputy chief on Feb. 21. But less attention has been given to Hardy’s reassignment.
Deputy Chief Hardy, 63, started at MPD in 1982 and has played many roles over his 40 years there, serving as a precinct commander and a member of the street crime abatement team among other duties.
He was appointed deputy chief for special operations in 2016. In that role, he oversaw MPD’s elite Organized Crime Unit and various specialized units including Homeland Security, Air Support, Harbor Patrol, the Bomb Squad, the Gang Unit, the Criminal Apprehension Team and the TACT squad – MPD’s version of a SWAT team of marksmen and hostage rescue personnel.
Chandler, 55, started at MPD in 1991 as a Police Service Technician in the Traffic Bureau and worked for a long time as a helicopter pilot in the Aviation Unit. He became a major in 2016 and was assigned to Felony Response and the Real Time Crime Center, according to his online biography.
“He’s a super sharp guy,’’ said retired MPD detective Wilton Cleveland. “He handles himself in a very professional manner.’’
Chandler stirred controversy in recent years for his role in MPD’s surveillance of social justice activists in Memphis. In that case, U.S. District Court Judge Jon McCalla found that MPD had violated a 1978 consent decree that prohibited the agency from collecting and disseminating data “relating to any person’s beliefs, opinions, associations or other exercise of First Amendment rights.”
Chandler testified in the case that he supervised Tim Reynolds, an MPD detective who posed on social media as “Bob Smith’’ to befriend activists and monitor their activities. Chandler said in a 2018 hearing that police surveilled activists to “monitor for threats to law enforcement.’’
“I have no confidence in any of them,’’ Paul Garner, an activist who was monitored by MPD, said Monday when asked about Chandler’s rise to deputy chief.
Efforts to interview Hardy and Chandler were unsuccessful.
MPD’s management shuffle includes shifts in patrol and investigative services.
Deputy Chief Samuel Hines now heads MPD’s uniform patrol division in both District 1 and District 2. Previously, those duties were split among two deputy chiefs.
Deputy Chief Paul Wright, who previously oversaw uniform patrol in District 2, now oversees investigative services.