Explainer-Tyre Nichols case: What is Memphis' controversial SCORPION police unit?

People protest after the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis

(Reuters) - At least some of the officers involved in the traffic stop that authorities say resulted in the beating and death of Tyre Nichols were part of a specialized Memphis policing unit called SCORPION.

Under pressure over rising violent crime, Memphis in October 2021 created SCORPION, which stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods. Its mandate is to stem homicides, assaults and robberies.

How is SCORPION connected to the Nichols case?

Because at least some of the officers belonged to SCORPION, questions have arisen over whether they were acting as part of the unit when they encountered Nichols.

More broadly, the case has drawn attention to Memphis' specialized units and elite police teams in general. Critics say these types of task forces often use aggressive tactics, operate without adequate oversight and harass communities of color.

Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, died in the hospital three days after a violent Jan. 7 encounter with the five Black officers who initially stopped his vehicle for a traffic violation.

The five officers have since been charged with second-degree murder, assault, kidnapping, official misconduct and official oppression and fired from their jobs.

What is the SCORPION unit?

Memphis officials have said the unit comprises about 40 officers in four teams concentrating on crime hot spots. Each team has members focused on car theft, gang investigations and "crime suppression," Mayor Jim Strickland said in a speech in January 2022.

A 2021 video about the unit's launch showed several dozen officers, mostly men, going through roll call before heading on patrols. Some wore plain clothes and drove unmarked cars.

In its first few months of existence, between October 2021 and Jan. 23, 2022, SCORPION made 566 arrests. Of those, 390 were felony arrests, according to Strickland. Officers seized tens of thousands of dollars and over 250 weapons, the mayor said.

What is the criticism of SCORPION?

The Nichols case has raised concerns that the unit strayed from its core mission, had inadequate oversight and used tactics that increased the risk of violence.

Lawyers for the family have called on the police department to disband SCORPION. Civil rights attorney Ben Crump said such units can turn into "a pack of wolves."

He pointed out that Nichols' encounter with police began with a traffic stop, which does not fall under the unit's mandate to address violent crime. Critics say such stops are excuses to search for weapons or drugs and can escalate into violence.

Crump also highlighted that another Black male in Memphis said he was the victim of "excessive force" by SCORPION officers just a few days before Nichols' death.

Is the unit under review?

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis this week announced a review of all of the police department's specialized units including SCORPION in response to Nichols' death. She called the incident "heinous, reckless and inhumane."

The department did not immediately respond to questions about SCORPION'S status, past complaints against the unit and whether all five officers were assigned to it.

(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)