The five police officers who killed Tyre Nichols were members of a specialized and highly violent group within the Memphis Police Department called the “SCORPION Unit.” Authorities “permanently deactivated” the unit amid nationwide outrage at the murder – a key demand raised by Nichols’ family and protesters in the streets. But its existence in the first place reveals a great deal about the nature of MPD and highly militarized departments across the country that routinely create teams like SCORPION.
SCORPION stands for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods”, a “saturation unit” which was created in 2021 to “fight crime.” It was widely despised, and protesters in Memphis this weekend marched with chants of, “Scorpion! Shut it down! Scorpion! Shut it down!”
Regardless of their name, these extremely violent units exist across the country: in DC they’re known as the jump-out squads, in Baltimore this unit was called the “Gun Trace Task Force” (GTTF). These units are often rife with corruption and operate as internal gangs within the police force. In 2017, Baltimore PD’s GTTF, had 8 officers convicted of racketeering, robbery, and extortion.
In Memphis, when speaking to WREG-TV, Cornell McKinney said that he was targeted by MPD’s SCORPION Unit on January 3rd while at a gas station — in an encounter where police told him, “Put your hands up before I blow your head off,” while falsely claiming he had drugs in the car. After he asked officers for a lawyer, he was told, “I was just playing, there aren’t any drugs in the car.”
The Scorpion Unit that was involved in the murder of Tyre Nichols already operated like a gang. With plainclothes police, many even in unmarked cars, people would only suspect that the members of the unit were police after they got out of their cars and read “SCORPION Unit” on their vests.
The Nichols family’s attorney, Ben 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.” He added that, “Officers tend to focus on Black and Brown members of the community and feel empowered to conduct ‘pretextual’ stops, or stops without probable cause, saying they are proactively looking for guns or drugs.”
MPD’s Deputy Chief Don Crowe said about the unit, “Their job is to identify the target area, flood that area with officers and suppress crime in that area mostly by visibility,” and, “just being present and having an officer there sees an impact on it.” In reality, this “special unit” is well known for its obsession of violence and the terror it inflicts on people in Memphis.
To the SCORPION Unit, violence isn’t some fluke, but a desired feature when it comes to recruiting. Demetrius Haley, one of the five officers involved in the murder of Tyre Nichols, was previously a corrections officer for the Shelby County Corrections Department — and a 2016 lawsuit revealed that he had beaten an inmate unconscious.
The police as an institution carry out horrific, racist violence to maintain the capitalist status quo of suffering for the many and total luxury for the few. And at times, these police agencies see the need to escalate the violence to new heights. It is for this reason that divisions like Memphis’ infamous SCORPION unit were created.