Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis saw homicide numbers on the rise only months after taking office in 2021. She noted late night drivers were buzzing wildly downtown, and she had a plan to confront the problems in Memphis.
The city had been dealing with drag racing and stunt driving. On a Saturday night in late November, all four lanes of traffic were blocked on Interstate 240 when two drivers began doing doughnuts on the highway, with a number of onlookers recording the activity on their phones. Local officials used the incident as ammunition to call for more legal leeway to seize violators’ cars.
As Memphis’s first African American chief, she launched a new police unit named Scorpion — or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — that would deploy some 40 officers as a strike team in some of the most volatile corners of the city.
Chief Davis described the reckless driving as the worst she had seen in her career and expressed fear about being on the roadways herself.
For reckless drivers, she told her team, officers were to focus less on writing tickets and more on an all-out strategy of seizing cars from the most dangerous drivers. Violent offenders needed to be targeted with new urgency.
It didn’t take long for the community to notice the heavy-handed policing in response to relatively minor offenses.
One protester at a demonstration on Sunday said that he had been stopped by the Scorpion unit in the past, including once when he said he was “roughed up” by officers on the unit.
Casio Montez said he wasn’t frightened by the experience, but knew it was unjustified, and noted that the Scorpion unit officers “only escalate the situation.”
“They get out on a situation that is probably a Level 3, but they get out of the car like it’s a Level 10,” Montez said.
Another activist named Hunter Dempster said the unit’s main mission had appeared to be conducting mass pullovers in poor neighborhoods that are home to many people of color.
He described the officers in the unit as “violent” bullies and said many residents had also questioned why the unit often used unmarked vehicles, “regular cars that you would never think were police.”
Dempster said people were prepared for trouble whenever a Scorpion unit conducted a traffic stop.
The police said they stopped Mr. Nichols on the night of Jan. 7 on suspicion of reckless driving, though Chief Davis later told NBC News that the department had been unable to find evidence for why he had been stopped.
The city announced the unit was disbanded on Saturday.
A sixth police officer has been relieved of his duties, Officer Preston Hemphill. His role in the attack was not disclosed.