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Attorneys for Tyre Nichols' family call for an end to Memphis Police SCORPION Squads

Attorney Ben Crump said the SCORPION units and similar around the country incite more violence than they prevent.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The attorneys representing Tyre Nichols' family in the aftermath of the 29-year-old's death at the hands of Memphis Police penned an open letter to the Memphis Police Department Thursday, calling for an end to SCORPION Squads and similar policing. 

In the letter, Crump said the five officers accused of killing Nichols were part of the SCORPION unit, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods, and should not have been conducting traffic stops.

Read Ben Crump's full statement here:

“Pro-active policing” or “saturation unit policing,” whether the officers are in unmarked cars wearing tactical vests or “jump-out boys” in plain clothes and undercover, is defined by several common and dangerous components. These types of aggressive units are used in cities across the country and are intended to flood troubled areas with officers to stem high crime. But what we’ve seen this month in Memphis and for many years in many places, is that the behavior of these units can morph into “wolf pack” misconduct that takes away a person’s liberty or freedom to move, akin to a kidnapping. 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 proactively looking for guns or drugs. 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.

We have learned from reports this week that the 5 now-fired officers involved in Tyre’s death were members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION squad, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods. Their mandate is to reduce violent crimes like carjacking, homicides, and aggressive assaults by flooding neighborhoods with 10-man teams. But the official cause for Tyre’s encounter with police on January 7, 2023, was a traffic stop, far outside the unit’s stated purpose of stemming violent crime. But the “why” of Tyre Nichols's death is found in this policing culture itself, not something Tyre personally did. And his running in fear for his life in-between a series of beatings was an affront to the officers, who wanted to show Tyre and the city of Memphis that as a team they can take anyone down. No one escapes the Scorpions.

Whatever happened to Tyre, there was a cultural mindset to it, and it’s not unique to Memphis. From Baltimore to Chicago and D.C., units like the SCORPION unmarked cars - regardless of what the units are named - cause terror in minority communities. In 2017, eight detectives in Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) were convicted of robbery and racketeering. In Chicago in 2004, a similar roving unit had to be disbanded when officers were accused of robberies and home invasions. In Washington, D.C., the ACLU has testified in court about hundreds of jump-outs they call illegal and examples of racial profiling. And in Memphis just a few days before Tyre Nichols was beaten, another Black male in the same community says he was also subjected to excessive force by a group of SCORPION officers.

To be fair, some “saturation patrols” do work, when they have a clear and controlled mandate like doing DUI checks - and can be effective in increasing community safety. However, the rampant and unchecked patrols taking on other crimes without oversight and transparency are where things go off the rails and officers can act with impunity in the community like a pack of wolves.

RAND Corporation, a public policy think tank on their website Better Policing Toolkit is critical of what they call “zero tolerance” and aggressive policing tactics. While the Daily Memphian quotes Former Memphis Police Director Winslow “Buddy” Chapman — who is now executive director of CrimeStoppers of Memphis and Shelby County — who said such proactive initiatives can provide a public service, but they must be tightly supervised and monitored because abuse often follows. He went on to say, “I think that one of the reasons minorities, impoverished people, people on the fringes of society, are frequently the victims of excessive use of force by police is that because let’s face it, it’s easier to get away with,” said Chapman, who served as police director from 1976 to 1983. 

Together we are calling for national change in this type of policing. We ask that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Department of Justice (DOJ) begin an investigation into cities that use these tactics and determine if they are effective in reducing crime and ask for all data on injuries and deaths related to “saturation patrols” as well as a compilation of complaints from citizens.

Further, we ask for the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the professional organization of police executives representing the largest cities in the United States and Canada, to join DOJ in this analysis. The group’s stated mission is to address the challenges and issues of policing. President of the Board, Edgardo (Eddie) Garcia, who is also police chief of the Dallas Police Department, we ask that you take on this challenge to improve policing and community trust nationwide. Now.

We insist on reform, transparency, and better oversight of these “saturation” units, or for their removal as a tactic in American policing. Our communities will be far better for it.

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