The Memphis Police Department unit that beat 29-year-old Tyre Nichols during a January 7 traffic stop was part of a division that operated with an annual budget of more than $28 million a year from the time of its creation in 2021 until it was disbanded over the weekend.
The department shut down the unit the day after police released body-camera footage of members of the unit beating Nichols to near the point of death. The father, skateboarder, and photographer died three days later in the hospital from injuries inflicted by the police.
The Memphis police unit, Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION, is part of a trend in policing in which highly armed groups of police are dispatched to “high-crime” areas that tend to be home to Black and brown residents.
The specialized units have been popping up all over the country, proposed in response to reports of rising violent crime. Some of the anti-crime units have been accused of excessive force; in the killing of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor by Louisville, Kentucky, police in 2020, that force was deadly. In addition, the units, as in the case of SCORPION in Memphis, are expensive to maintain, rekindling a national debate about the funding of police departments.
“The SCORPION unit is what ‘fund the police’ rhetoric looks like in reality,” Working Families Party National Director Maurice Mitchell said in a statement to The Intercept. “Instead of pouring more money into militarized forces that brutalize, terrorize, and even murder, we should fund libraries, after-school programs, good jobs, and other investments proven to keep us safe.”
“The SCORPION unit is what ‘fund the police’ rhetoric looks like in reality.”
Memphis spends more on policing than almost any other service provided by the city. In 2022, the department’s budget was $275.7 million, or 39 percent of the city’s total that year. Of that sum, $28.3 million was allocated to a division for special operations that includes the organized crime unit, which houses the SCORPION unit that stopped Nichols, along with air support, a canine unit, mounted patrol, traffic, and other teams.
In a May city council meeting on the department’s 2023 budget outlook, Police Chief Cerelyn Davis discussed some of the department’s highlights for the year, including the creation of crime-targeting units like SCORPION, which Davis said “have been very effective.”
The Memphis Police Department’s proposed budget for 2023 is $284.75 million, an increase of just under $10 million.
Memphis launched the SCORPION unit in October 2021 as part of Mayor Jim Strickland’s strategy to fight crime and gun violence after a record number of homicides that year. Part of the organized crime division, the unit was composed of 40 officers and used crime data to determine where it would conduct enforcement activities.
In its first three months in operation, the SCORPION unit made more than 560 arrests.
On Saturday, the Memphis Police Department announced that the unit would be disbanded after “listening intently” to Nichols’s family, community leaders, and other officers. A former Memphis cop told CBS News that the unit was composed of young officers with little experience and that training was scant and included three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of training in suspect apprehension, and one day at a firing range.
In a statement made Thursday, Ben Crump, the attorney representing Nichols’s family, specifically criticized the SCORPION unit and others like it around the country.
“‘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,” Crump said. “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.”
The traffic stop that led to Nichols’s death, Crump said, was “far outside the unit’s stated purpose of stemming violent crime.”
“Memphis should be a wake up call for Democrats.”
Nationally, debates about police funding have become a hot-button electoral issue. The call to defund gained steam among activists and the left wing of the Democratic Party, leading to attacks from Republicans who, without evidence, painted their opponents as soft on crime. The result has been that most Democratic Party politicians outdo one another to burnish pro-police bona fides.
That trend, said Mitchell, the Working Families Party director, is based on a logic that continues to give police huge budgets — and carte blanche — to pursue policies and tactics that harm urban communities.
Mitchell said, “Memphis should be a wake up call for Democrats.”