Memphis police permanently disband unit tied to deadly beating of Tyre Nichols
By Nouran Salahieh, Jamiel Lynch, Chuck Johnston, Shawn Nottingham, Andy Rose and Christina Maxouris, CNN
A day after the public release of video showing the horrific police beating of Tyre Nichols, the Memphis police department announced it is permanently deactivating the unit that five of the involved officers belonged to.
The SCORPION unit, launched in 2021, was tasked with tackling rising crime in the city, but has been heavily criticized in the aftermath of the 29-year-old man’s killing. Nichols was brutally beaten on January 7 after a traffic stop. He required hospitalization and died on January 10.
The five Memphis officers who were fired and charged in Nichols’ death all were members of the unit, Memphis police spokesperson Maj. Karen Rudolph told CNN on Saturday.
In a statement posted on Twitter Saturday, Memphis police said it was “in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate” the unit.
“The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step,” police said. “While the heinous actions of a few casts a cloud of dishonor on the title SCORPION, it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted.”
Nichols family attorneys Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci praised the department’s decision to disband the unit and called for other cities to “take similar action with their saturation police units in the near future to begin to create greater trust in their communities.”
“We must keep in mind that this is just the next step on this journey for justice and accountability, as clearly this misconduct is not restricted to these specialty units. It extends so much further,” the attorneys said in a joint statement.
Some city leaders said disbanding the unit is just one step in addressing issues within the police force.
“The community has a lot more questions and a lot more demands,” Memphis City Council Member Patrice Robinson told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Saturday evening.
“We have gotten emails from many citizens in our community, they’re all concerned and they’re expressing exactly what they see and what they want to see in our police department. We really need to investigate and find out what’s going on.”
What the video shows
The police statement comes less than 24 hours after the release of the graphic videos of police striking the Black man. There were protests Friday night, with people in several cities taking to the streets and raising signs bearing Nichols’ name.
Ahead of the release of the videos, Nichols’ mother, RowVaughn Wells, called for peaceful protests.
In Memphis, protesters late Friday shut down an Interstate 55 bridge near the downtown area, chanting, “No justice, no peace,” according to a CNN team on the scene. There were no arrests stemming from the demonstration, police said.
In New York, skirmishes broke out between several protesters and police officers as demonstrators crowded Times Square, video posted to social media shows. Three demonstrators were arrested, one of whom was seen jumping on the hood of a police vehicle and breaking the windshield, the New York Police Department said.
Several cities also saw demonstrations Saturday, including New York City, where a group of protesters marched about two miles from Washington Square in Lower Manhattan to Times Square in Midtown. And protesters in downtown Atlanta Saturday repeated Nichols’ name and demanded justice.
Video of the January 7 encounter shows “acts that defy humanity,” Memphis police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis warned before the footage’s release to the public.
The arrest begins with a traffic stop for what officers said was reckless driving and goes on to show officers beating Nichols with batons, kicking him and punching him — including while his hands are restrained behind his body — as the young man cries out for his mother, video shows.
The encounter ends with Nichols slumped to the ground in handcuffs, leaning against a police cruiser unattended as officers mill about. Nichols was later hospitalized and died three days later.
Video shows 23 minutes passed from the time Nichols appears to be subdued and on his back on the ground before a stretcher arrives at the scene.
Footage of the violent encounter was released because Nichols’ family “want the world to be their witness and feel their pain,” Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy said.
“While nothing we do can bring Tyre back, we promise you that we are doing all we can to ensure that Tyre’s family, and our city of Memphis, see justice for Tyre Nichols,” Mulroy added.
President Joe Biden said he was “outraged and deeply pained” after seeing the video. “It is yet another painful reminder of the profound fear and trauma, the pain, and the exhaustion that Black and Brown Americans experience every single day.”
Officers charged with murder
The Memphis Police Department has been unable to find anything to substantiate the probable cause for reckless driving and said video of the encounter shows a “disregard for life, duty of care that we’re all sworn to,” Davis said.
Five former Memphis police officers involved in the arrest — who are also Black — have been charged with second-degree murder and aggravated kidnapping, according to the Shelby County district attorney. They were identified as Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin and Desmond Mills Jr.
Two Memphis Fire Department employees who were part of Nichols’ initial care were relieved of duty, pending the outcome of an internal investigation.
Also, two deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office have been put on leave pending an investigation after the sheriff viewed the video.
Nichols’ family attorney Ben Crump said the family did not know there were two members of the sheriff’s office at the scene of the beating, telling CNN on Saturday, “this was the first they heard of it.”
The Memphis Police Association, which represents city police officers, expressed condolences to the Nichols family and said it does not condone the mistreatment of citizens or abuse of power.
The association said it has “faith in the criminal justice system.”
“That faith is what we will lean on in the coming days, weeks, and months to ensure the totality of circumstances is revealed,” according to a statement. “Mr. Nichols’ family, the City of Memphis, and the rest of the country deserve nothing less.”
According to Easter-Thomas, the City Council meeting next week will be “robust.”
Easter-Thomas said she wants to ensure the police department knows the council supports them but expects officers to do their jobs with the “utmost fidelity.”
‘We have to do better, this is unacceptable’
The Memphis police chief likened the video to the 1991 Los Angeles police beating of Rodney King that sparked days of unrest in the city.
“It’s very much aligned with that same type of behavior,” Davis said.
Crump also made the comparison. “Being assaulted, battered, punched, kicked, tased, pepper sprayed. It is very troubling,” he said.
“The only difference between my father’s situation and now is hashtags and a clearer camera,” Rodney King’s daughter Lora King told CNN. “We have to do better, this is unacceptable.”
“I don’t think anybody in their right mind, anybody that respects humanity is OK with this,” she said, adding that she’s saddened for Nichols’ family and loved ones. “I’m just sad for just where we are in America, we’re still here.”
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CNN’s Mark Morales, Sharif Paget, Shimon Prokupecz, Hannah Sarisohn, John Bonifield, Elizabeth Hartfield and Mary Kay Mallonee contributed to this report.