Monday, January 30, 2023

What Exactly Is This SCORPION Unit - Will Those In Charge Be Held Accountable?

psrmemphis  |  Memphis police officers watched as a man with a handgun bulging from his right hip walked past them and into a convenience store where he attempted to make a purchase.

It was busy that Friday night in Parkway Village, the day before several of these same officers would become entangled in a deadly encounter with Tyre Nichols – a violent altercation that resulted in the 29-year-old motorist’s death in a hospital bed three days later.

The action grew intense – and violent – on this night, too.

Members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION Team One swooped onto this gas station parking lot when they saw some young men loitering about.

After witnessing what they believed was a drug transaction, officers chased down one man and, during a struggle, pepper-sprayed him. They arrested another man who, like Nichols, had no criminal record. Carrying a pistol in his belt, he apparently violated the edges of Tennessee’s permitless carry law by entering a business displaying signs that guns are prohibited.

“Suspect … refused to cooperate and listen to detectives and immediately started screaming,’’ Officer Demetrius Haley wrote in a report charging the 22-year-old man with misdemeanor offenses of disorderly conduct and unlawfully possessing a gun.

An investigation by the Institute for Public Service Reporting found that Haley and four other officers terminated by MPD last week in connection with Nichols’ death were affiliated with a special unit called SCORPION, a data-driven initiative that identifies crime hotspots and attempts to suppress them with saturation patrols.

Records show the unit’s aggressive tactics often trigger volatile interactions with members of the public.

Launched in 2021 by MPD Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis as part of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s war on crime, the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION, unit identifies upticks in motor vehicle theft and violent crime and then targets those areas with patrolling SCORPION officers – at times in unmarked cars. An opens in a new windowMPD video promoting the unit appears to show some of the officers dressed in plainclothes.

Discussing SCORPION in a January 2022 address, opens in a new windowStrickland said the unit of “four, 10-man teams” had made 566 arrests in its first three months alone, seizing more than “$103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons.”

The mayor said then the unit targets homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and carjackings.

Yet dozens of reports reviewed by the Institute for Public Service Reporting found SCORPION officers also appear to engage in “zero-tolerance” or “proactive policing”-type activities, at times stopping motorists for tinted windows or for failing to wear seat belts and confronting or arresting others for loitering, gambling, drug possession and other low-level offenses – controversial tactics now at the heart of a national debate on how best to balance public safety and community trust.

A thorough analysis of SCORPION’s activities was not possible on deadline for this story. Some reports show officers removing dangerous individuals from the streets. Policy experts warn, however, that such aggressive tactics, if not properly supervised, can lead to discrimination and abuse, and can erode faith in police.

“They can be very effective,’’ said former Memphis Police Director E. Winslow “Buddy” Chapman. “But they must be very closely controlled and monitored.

“The danger is exactly what happened in this case,’’ he said, referring to the death of Nichols.

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