Scorpion Unit one of many special police units under fire

(NewsNation) — The recently disbanded Scorpion Unit, of which the five officers charged with the murder of Tyre Nichols were members, was one of several crime-suppression teams now under scrutiny for their policing techniques.

The Scorpion Unit — the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods unit — was a 40-person team created by Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis in 2021 to curb the city’s high homicide rates and halt gang- and drug-related crimes in Memphis.

“The whole idea was to have more visibility, be laser-focused on repeat offenders, (but the unit failed to live up to that),” Davis told NewsNation affiliate WREG. “You can have all of the ideal policies, but if you have a culture that doesn’t have supervision, that doesn’t have adherence to the policies, then you’ve got problems.”

According to Davis, since the unit was formed, it has arrested over 2,000 violent felons, leading to a decrease in homicides and violent crimes in the city. But a New York Times investigation found the unit may have disproportionately targeted African American men. Of the 150 arrest affidavits sampled in the review, about 90 percent of those arrested by the unit were Black.

The report found Black residents across Memphis, who make up only 65 percent of the population, are three times as likely as white residents to be subjected to physical force by police officers, according to departmental data over the past seven years.

“There’s been an undercurrent, and a common theme, of maybe illegal investigative techniques (being) used to stop and frisk,” former FBI special agent Stuart Kaplan told NewsNation. “And one of those things is to profile.”

According to Kaplan, teams like this are common in most major cities with “concentrated areas of high crime activity,” where police chiefs may be under political pressure to fight high crime rates.

“What happens is you create these units, they become an island to themselves, and they basically become unsupervised,” said Kaplan, who has worked closely with crime-suppression units like this before. “When there are excess of force allegations put forth, when they land on the chief’s desk, because he or she is under so much political pressure to combat crime, sometimes it’s swept under the rug.”

Despite the renewed scrutiny and backlash following the deadly beating of Nichols, Davis has defended her status leading Memphis PD after taking swift action to fire the officers involved.

“People may question my leadership, but I would like to say that I have stood and have done the work, as it relates to how to manage an organization, what’s important to the organization and the changes that I’ve made here.”

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