In some quarters of Memphis, Tennessee, Tyre Nichols’s death at the hands of officers who, on January 8 had stopped him for a traffic violation that escalated into a violent beating that ultimately killed him, was shocking, but it was not a surprise.
Even as city officials credited Scorpion officers with bringing down violent crime, their presence had spread fear in the predominantly low-income neighborhoods they patrolled, and records show that Black men were overwhelmingly their targets.
The New York Times reports that since its formation in November 2021, the specialized squad of some 40 officers that was deployed to deter violence in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods was responsible for repeated acts of intimidation, harassment and violence by some of its officers, according to interviews with dozens of people in the community, including several arrested by the unit’s officers.
“Police out here riding around like hound dogs,” said Lareta Johnson Ray, whose family members wound up in a violent encounter with the unit’s officers after running from them last summer. The Scorpion unit was “terrorizing this city,” Ms. Ray said, and Mr. Nichols’s death was “not the first time that they be beating on people — it was the first time that they messed up.”
Scorpion encounters typically began over something minor — a tinted window violation, a seatbelt infraction, a broken taillight or cracked windshield — and often resulted in officers finding illegal drugs, unregistered weapons, stolen cars and outstanding warrants. Their tactics could be aggressive, according to interviews and records, with arrestees being subdued by baton, pepper spray, Taser and the brute force of the officers’ fists.
Young Black men have disproportionately borne the brunt of the Scorpion operations: A New York Times review of arrest affidavits in about 150 of what are estimated to be thousands of cases handled by the unit suggests that the unit’s tactics appeared to rely heavily on the vehicular equivalent of “stop and frisk,” a tactic that civil rights advocates say can drive racial profiling and put people of color at risk of police violence.
In the sample reviewed by The Times, about 90 percent of those arrested by the unit were Black — much higher than the share of the city’s population that is Black, about 65 percent. Black residents across Memphis were three times as likely as white residents to be subjected to physical force by police officers, according to department data over the past seven years.
The uses of force, according to those interviewed, were not always minor. Some said they were left bloodied and bruised. One man, his lawyer said, suffered a busted jaw.
Two of the officers charged in Mr. Nichols’s death had been disciplined previously after using force and failing to submit the required documentation on how it was used, according to personnel files. In one of those cases, a woman reported being beaten by officers and slammed against a patrol car.
City officials were impressed by what they perceived to be the unit’s success: the unit was achieving its mission in a city that had endured more than 300 homicides in 2021, a record. The city soon began touting the Scorpions’ hundreds of arrests, its seizures of scores of drugs, guns, vehicles and cash — with Memphis police noting on Facebook the unit’s role in high-profile cases, often posting photos of items that officers had confiscated.
“Police have really changed and modified what they are doing under the Scorpion,” Mayor Jim Strickland said in a television interview on Jan. 11 — the day after Mr. Nichols died — while crediting the unit with helping reduce homicides in the city. “It is a team they have really directed at that.”
Within a few weeks, the Scorpion unit would be disbanded and five officers charged in the killing of Mr. Nichols, a case that has sparked national outrage and renewed discussion about the use of specialized crime-fighting units in neighborhoods that are often home to low-income families, and people of color.
Michalyn Easter-Thomas, a member of the City Council, said she did not hear about the volatile encounters people had with the Scorpion unit until after Mr. Nichols’s death. Now that the light has been shined on the highly questionable practices of the former elite unit, she said, “I just wish we would have known sooner.”