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Institute for Public Service Reporting – Memphis

Watchdog

Suspended Officer Hemphill Was On SCORPION Unit

Court records detail special unit’s aggressive policing actions

Tyre Nichols is taken to the ground on Jan. 7 as SCORPION officer Preston Hemphill’s body camera records the action.

Two days before their fatal encounter with Tyre Nichols, members of SCORPION Team One patrolled the winding lanes of a Hickory Hill neighborhood.

There, the Memphis Police Department special unit came upon a parked Volkswagen.

“As Detectives approached the vehicle, they were able to smell the odor of Marijuana emitting from the vehicle,’’ officer Demetrius Haley wrote in a report detailing the arrest of a 19-year-old man.

With no criminal record, the man was released hours later without posting any bail bond and his charges were later dismissed, but not before officers seized his vehicle and nearly $400 cash – evidence to some of the aggressive overreach that special police “jump out’’ squads often engage in while patrolling minority communities in cities across the country.

Among the officers participating in the Jan. 5 arrest was Preston Hemphill, 26, whom police supervisors identified this week as one of seven officers suspended or fired in connection with the Jan. 7 beating of motorist Nichols during a traffic stop. Nichols died three days later.

Court records reviewed by the Institute for Public Service Reporting identify Hemphill as a detective with the now-disbanded Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION, unit. Those records show Hemphill had worked since at least last fall with now-fired officers Haley, Tadarrius Bean, Emmitt Martin III, Justin Smith, and Desmond Mills Jr., on SCORPION’s Team One.

The five fired officers have all been charged with crimes ranging from second-degree murder to aggravated kidnapping and official misconduct.

MPD said in a statement Monday that Hemphill was relieved of duty on Jan. 8 and remains under investigation. Neither Hemphill nor a second unidentified officer also relieved of duty in connection with the Nichols incident have been charged with crimes.

Among a dozen reports involving Hemphill reviewed by The Institute is one documenting a Dec. 20 pursuit of a Honda Civic that had made “an improper turn’’ in North Memphis.

“Detective (Wann) Reed paced the Honda Civic at 79 miles per hour in a 40 mile per hour zone and observed it run the red light at Jackson and Macon without making an attempt to slow down,’’ an officer wrote in an affidavit of complaint, a sworn statement that police file in General Sessions Criminal Court to perfect an arrest.

Assistant Police Chief Don Crowe awards Preston Hemphill a certificate as a trained Crisis Intervention Team member last July. (MPD Facebook page)

“Detective Reed initiated a traffic stop with blue lights and sirens at Jackson and Vernon. Detectives Bean and Hemphill pulled over to assist.’’

The nearly 2-mile pursuit netted a felony charge of possession of methamphetamines and four misdemeanor counts including reckless driving, speeding and possession of drug paraphernalia. The charges are pending.

MPD policy prohibits high-speed pursuits unless a violent felony is suspected. The affidavit does not detail such a suspicion.

It’s unclear from the affidavit precisely when officers activated their blue lights and whether they were driving unmarked cars. Video from the Jan. 7 Nichols traffic stop showed SCORPION officers in unmarked black or dark blue Dodge Chargers. Reports obtained by The Institute also show SCORPION Team One engaged in another high-speed pursuit of a vehicle on Sept. 20 in what was described as “mobile surveillance’’ using an unmarked car.

Such aggressive tactics are risky and go well behind a simple mission of zero tolerance, said former Memphis Police Director E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman.

“It’s much more than that,’’ said Chapman, who served as police director from 1976 to 1983 and currently serves as executive director of CrimeStoppers of Memphis and Shelby County.

“They are charged with sending a message to the criminals. Unfortunately, they’re sending a message to the entire community, too.’’

Chapman said he favors such “zero-tolerance” or “proactive policing”-type activities used by SCORPION, such as stopping motorists for tinted windows or for failing to wear seat belts and confronting or arresting others for loiteringgambling, and drug possession – but only if such activities are closely controlled and supervised.

MPD did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis told WREG Channel 3 News in recent interviews that MPD suffers from “supervisory gaps.’’

“Our department is woefully unsupervised,’’ said Davis, who said she’s asked for funding for 150 sergeant positions to serve as field-level supervisors. “That’s one of the issues that I noticed when I first came here.’’

Davis launched SCORPION in 2021 to battle rising violent crime. The effort saturated crime “hot spots” 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.

“These often aggressive encounters flat out destruct trust between police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve, but as we saw in the tragic and unnecessary death of Tyre Nichols, can also lead to physical injury or death when the culture of unchecked, pro-active policing overtakes common sense.’’

Attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci

Calling for an end to SCORPION last week, Ben Crump, an attorney representing Nichols’ family, said such “jump out boys” or “proactive policing’’ units employed by various police departments across the country act like “wolf packs” targeting minority communities.

“Officers tend to focus on Black and Brown members of the community and feel empowered to conduct ‘pre-textual’ stops, or stops without probable cause, saying they are pro-actively looking for guns or drugs,’’ Crump and attorney Antonio Romanucci said in a written statement. “These often aggressive encounters flat out destruct trust between police and the communities they are sworn to protect and serve, but as we saw in the tragic and unnecessary death of Tyre Nichols, can also lead to physical injury or death when the culture of unchecked, pro-active policing overtakes common sense.’’

Hemphill could not be reached for comment.

His attorney, Lee Gerald, told the Daily Memphian that Hemphill was present at the initial Nichols traffic stop on Jan. 7 and that his bodycam footage is the first of four videos released by the City of Memphis last Friday. Hemphill is seen on the video deploying his Taser.

Court records show that Hemphill was involved in a variety of arrests while operating with SCORPION Team One, including a Jan. 5 action in the Cedar Run Apartments in Hickory Hill that led to the dismissal of marijuana and drug paraphernalia charges.

Some of the reports describe encounters with individuals who appear to be dangerous or heavily armed.

Hemphill swore out an affidavit documenting an Oct. 5 action in which he, Smith, Bean and other detectives dispersed a large crowd of men in the parking lot of a Grizzly Mart convenience store in Whitehaven.

“Detectives observed multiple males on the lot carrying what appeared to be Draco style rifles as well as handguns,’’ Hemphill wrote. “Detectives approached the lot and upon pulling onto the parking lot multiple vehicles sped off in different directions.’’

A foot chase led to the arrest of a 19-year-old man who was charged with felony marijuana possession and misdemeanor counts of evading arrest and possession of drug paraphernalia. Prosecutors later dropped all charges.

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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