Scorpion Force emerges as Memphis police take tough approach

MEMPHIS – Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis was only a few months into her job in 2021 when she saw homicides rising to record levels. Near her new downtown home, drivers buzzed the streets frantically, often late at night. She has a plan for dealing with the chaos.

She told her team that officers should focus less on issuing tickets for reckless drivers and more on a comprehensive strategy to wrest cars from the most dangerous drivers. Violent perpetrators need to be tackled with a renewed sense of urgency. She decided that if the state couldn’t take the case to court, her agency should ask federal prosecutors to take it up.

“We all know being tough with tough people,” she said at a community event that November.

Two days later, Commissioner Davis, the first African-American woman to lead the department, launched her most ambitious strategy: a new police force called Scorpion — or Street Crime Operations to Restoring Peace in Our Neighborhoods — that will About 40 police officers were deployed as a strike team in some of the most unstable corners of the city.

Before long, some residents were complaining about the heavy-handed approach of New Scorpion officers, with punitive policing measures for relatively minor offenses. Then came the arrest and killing of Tire Nichols, and video footage released on Friday showing how police kicked, punched and batoned Mr Nichols. Nichols begged them to let him go home.

Five police officers have been charged with murder, and community leaders are now trying to assess how a unit that was supposed to ease violence in Memphis carried out an attack so brutal that Chief Davis himself called it “heinous” and “inhumane.” The city announced Saturday that it was disbanding the department, with Commissioner Davis calling for a review of all specialty divisions in her department.

“We still want to solve crime in our neighborhoods, but we don’t need to kill innocent people to do it,” said the mayoral candidate, president of the city’s NAACP branch, recently in a recent “ Reinventing Policing” Mayor’s Advisory Council.

The city has for months touted the Scorpions as the linchpin of its crime-fighting strategy, touting them as almost overnight fame as the city posted record homicide numbers. Memphis recorded more than 300 murders in 2021; by comparison, New York City, which is 13 times larger, had fewer than 500.

Just days after the unveiling of the Scorpion unit, a local TV report reported that Memphis police said they had arrested more than 30 people and seized at least 29 guns and nearly 170 grams of marijuana.

Scorpion’s alleged success became a talking point among city officials, including Mayor Jim Strickland, who highlighted the department and listed its early achievements in his January 2022 State of the Union address: 566 arrests , of which 390 were arrested for felonies and $103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons were confiscated.

Sheriff Davis, commemorating her one-year anniversary in May 2022, gave a speech to City Council in which she pointed to some progress made in reducing crime. In a slide titled “Crime Reduction,” the Scorpion sector was her first bullet point.

“We created the new Scorpion unit,” she said, adding: “The unit is basically targeting some of the hotspots where we’re seeing serious attacks and high crime rates on a regular basis.”

Like much of the country, Memphis saw its homicide numbers skyrocket in 2020 and 2021. Those numbers were down last year, but it’s unclear how much of the credit goes to the Scorpions, as many cities also saw declines in 2022. Property crimes rose in Memphis last year.

Some activists and community members were wary of the actions of Scorpion’s forces long before the attack on Mr. Nichols.

Hunter Dempster, an organizer with Decarcerate Memphis, a group that promotes accountability in the criminal justice system, said Sunday that his organization has long warned against the Scorpions. He said the department’s main mission appears to be mass pullovers in poor neighborhoods where many people of color live.

He described the unit’s officers as “violent” bullies and said many residents also questioned why the unit often used unmarked vehicles, “regular vehicles that you would never recognize as police.”

In any case, he said, whenever the Scorpio Force conducts a traffic stop, people brace for trouble.

“If you get pulled over, you know there’s potential for violence,” he said. “That’s how much the public fears these units.”

Such debates are reverberating in cities across the country, many of which are once again creating specialized departments to aggressively target criminals in high-crime neighborhoods during the pandemic — in some cases, as has been the case in past years when such departments have been dismantled. The city when concerns rise about the unit’s strategy or outcome.

In 2020, for example, the New York Police Department disbanded the aggressive squad known as the “crime-fighting unit” that patrolled the city, often in plainclothes. The teams were tasked with taking guns off the streets and they made a lot of arrests. But they are also responsible for a disproportionate number of stop and frisk incidents, as well as police shootings. Last year, new mayor Eric Adams, himself a former police commander, revived a version of the units, although officers now wear modified police uniforms rather than civilian clothes.

gentlemen. Adams is one of many local politicians across the country who have won elections over the past two years after campaigning on a tough-on-crime platform.

The family of Nichols, an attorney representing Liu, called on federal officials to investigate hotspot police forces, saying they routinely go unpunished and oppress young people and communities of color. Antonio Romanucci, one of the family’s lawyers, said that while the unit had good intentions, it turned out to be a failure.

“The purpose of this scorpion force is to fight crime under the guise of fighting crime, but what it ultimately does is create an ongoing pattern and practice of bad behavior,” he said. The lawyers said they had heard of other previous cases of Mr. case. Nichols was killed by the excessive use of force by Scorpion forces.

In developing her 2021 crime-fighting strategy, Sheriff Davis singled out Memphis’ reckless driving, calling it the worst she’s ever seen in her career and expressing her fear of being on the road.

The city has been dealing with drag racing and stunt driving. All four lanes of Interstate 240 were blocked when two drivers started making donuts on the highway one Saturday night in late November, with many onlookers recording the activity on their cellphones. Local officials used the incident as ammunition to demand more legal leeway to impound violators’ cars.

“We advocate: Take away the car,” Chief Davis said in 2021. enough.”

Police said they stopped Mr. Nichols on a January night. 7 on suspicion of reckless driving, although Chief Davis later told NBC News that the department could find no evidence of why he was pulled over. Video shows police surrounding Mr. Nichols’ car stopped at the intersection, cursed at him and pulled him out of the driver’s door. gentlemen. Nichols spoke in a calm tone and appeared to be trying to defuse the situation, while the officers continued to swear and yell.

He was eventually taken to hospital in critical condition after police beat him. gentlemen. Nichols died three days later. Lawyers for his family said an independent autopsy found Mr. Nichols was “bleeding profusely from the severe beating”.

After announcing the disbandment of the unit on Saturday, some city officials said they wanted to see what marching orders were given when the unit was created.

“We’re all praising them because we have a violent crime problem and a drag racing problem,” said Worth Morgan, a member of the city council. And there’s a big problem with what these officials are doing.”

Another committee member, Frank Corvette Jr., said he hadn’t heard any complaints about the scorpions before he lodged his protest. Nichols posthumously agreed to the decision to dissolve it.

“I support closing the department until we know more about how they are recruited and how they are trained,” he said.

About a dozen protesters gathered outside the Ridgway Station of the Memphis Police Department on Sunday, the third day of protests in a row.

During the demonstration, Casio Montez said in an interview that closing the Scorpion unit was a positive first step, but organizers also want to disband another crime-fighting unit — a special operations unit focused on illegal drugs.

gentlemen. Montez said he has been stopped by Scorpion units in the past, including one time he said he was “managed” by officers of the unit.

“It’s not terrible,” Mr. Montez said. “I just know it’s unreasonable.”

gentlemen. Montez, who is Black, said his experience with the unit was that the officers “only escalated the situation.”

“They got off at what might have been a level 3, but they got off like they were at level 10,” Mr. Montez said. “So at the end of the day, we have to tear down the whole division and rebuild it. Before we do that, there’s going to be another tire.”

Jessica Jaglois Contribution report. Julie Tate contributed research.

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