(BBC News) The Memphis Police Department has disbanded the so-called Scorpion special unit, five officers of which are accused of murdering Tyre Nichols.
Scorpion stands for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods”. The unit is a 50-person team tasked with bringing down crime levels in particular areas.
But now it is being abolished after some of its officers were seen beating Nichols, 29, in the videos from January 7. In a statement, the department said “it is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate” the unit.
“While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonour on the title Scorpion, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department, take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted,” it added.
Nichols’ family welcomed the decision in a statement from their lawyers, calling it “both appropriate and proportional to the tragic death of Tyre Nichols, and also a decent and just decision for all citizens of Memphis.”
The unit was launched in October 2021 with a focus on high-impact crimes, such as car thefts and gang-related offences.
The five officers – Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith – were fired last week.
They were taken into custody on Thursday and each faces charges of second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping, official misconduct, and official oppression.
Four of the five posted bail and were released from custody by Friday morning, according to jail records.
Lawyers for Martin and Mills have said their clients will plead not guilty.
Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr said two deputy sheriffs who “appeared on the scene following” the confrontation have also been suspended pending an internal investigation.
In an interview with BBC News on Friday, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis said the Scorpion unit was created to be “more responsive” and “more proactive” to gun violence in the city. But she acknowledged that the officers who brutally beat Tyre Nichols “decided to go off the rails.”
“We are doing an individual evaluation of all units,” she said. “This is a necessary step. We want to be fully transparent to the community.”
But for some, the problem of police violence is more deeply rooted than any reform can address.
“We need to have national criminal justice reform,” Gloria Browne-Marshall, a professor of constitutional law at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told the BBC. She said units like the Scorpion unit exist “across the country” so piecemeal reform was not going to be a solution.
Police initially said Nichols had been stopped on suspicion of reckless driving, which has not been substantiated. He died in hospital three days later, on January 10.
Nichols was black, as are all five officers charged in the case.
The Memphis Police Department released four graphic videos of the traffic stop and its violent aftermath on Friday, totalling more than an hour of footage.
Peaceful protests took place in Memphis on Friday night after the video was released, with some demonstrators blocking a major highway in the city, while small-scale demonstrations were held elsewhere in the country.
Many protesters held banners demanding justice for Nichols and an end to “police terror”.
The Scorpion program was touted by Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland in a speech a year ago. He said the city used crime data “to determine where the unit will conduct its enforcement activities within the city.”
From October 2021 until January 2022, the unit made 566 arrests, he said. They also seized more than $100,000 in cash, 270 vehicles, and 253 weapons.
One of the officers who arrested Nichols had previously been sued by a man who accused him of beating him when he was a prisoner eight years ago.