MEMPHIS — The Memphis Police Department said on Saturday that it had disbanded a specialized group known as the Scorpion unit after five of its officers were charged with second-degree murder in the death of Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man who was shown on video being kicked, struck and pepper-sprayed by those officers.
Mr. Nichols’s family and activists in the city had demanded that the Police Department dismantle the unit, which deployed officers to patrol higher-crime areas of the city and had drawn scorn in the communities it served even before Mr. Nichols’s death this month.
“It is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the Scorpion unit,” the Police Department said in a statement on Saturday
Police officials said the decision had been reached after “listening intently to the family of Tyre Nichols, community leaders and the uninvolved officers who have done quality work in their assignments.” Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis police chief, met with other members of the unit on Saturday.
“The officers currently assigned to the unit agree unreservedly with this next step,” the department said in the statement. It added that while the “heinous actions of a few” cast a cloud of dishonor on the unit, “it is imperative that we, the Memphis Police Department, take proactive steps in the healing process for all impacted.”
Lawyers for Mr. Nichols’s family called the decision “appropriate and proportional.”
Theunit — its full name is the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods unit — had been central to efforts by city and police officials to combat persistent violence and crime at a time when the city’s murder rate had been climbing, stoking fears about public safety.Jim Strickland, the mayor of Memphis, had highlighted the unit’s importance to his crime-fighting strategy during his State of the City address a year ago.
Scorpion was launched in 2021 by Chief Davis just months after she took over the department.The group consisted of about 40 officers who drove unmarked vehicles, making traffic stops and hundreds of arrests as well as seizing weapons.
Mr. Nichols was stopped on the evening of Jan. 7 as he was headed to the home he shared with his mother and stepfather in the southeastern corner of Memphis. The video footage released on Friday that captured Mr. Nichols’s interactions with officers showed him being pulled out of his car, and he can be heard saying, “I’m just trying to go home.”
Mr. Nichols fled on foot, and when officers caught up to him, he was kicked, struck by a baton and pepper-sprayed, at one point screaming, “Mom! Mom! Mom!” He was hospitalized in critical condition and died three days later.
An independent autopsy commissioned by his family found that Mr. Nichols “suffered extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to preliminary findings.
Five officers were charged on Thursday in connection with Mr. Nichols’s death: Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith. All of the officers, who are also Black, were fired after an internal investigation found they had used excessive force and had failed to intervene or render aid, as required by the department’s policy.
Before the charges were announced and the video footage was made public, Chief Davis issued a video statement on Wednesday condemning the officers’ actions and ordered a review of specialized groups including Scorpion. “This is not just a professional failing,” she said. “This is a failing of basic humanity toward another individual.”
Mr. Strickland, appearing on a podcast produced by The Daily Memphian, said on Friday that the unit had been inactive. He also said he wanted to pursue a more substantial evaluation of the culture within the Police Department.
While officials sought to cast the behavior of the charged officers as a rare and disturbing outlier, critics had accused the Scorpion unit of using excessive force against others, and it was regarded by many in the community as an oppressive force.
“Again and again, there are instances of Memphis police officers exhibiting egregious behavior,” said Jake Brown, a lawyer who joined protests in the city on Saturday. “Not as egregious, necessarily, as what they did to Mr. Nichols, but acting with a cavalier attitude toward what their fellow officers would think and what their supervisors would think.”
In a news conference on Friday, after the charges against the officers were announced, Mr. Nichols’s family called for legislation and policy changes in an effort to make the police more accountable and overhaul how officers interact with residents.
One of the family’s principle demands was to shut down the Scorpion unit. Anthony Romanucci, one of the family’s lawyers, assailed the unit and others like it that police departments across the country have employed to knock back crime in neighborhoods where it has been persistent.
“The intent was good,” Mr. Romanucci said. “The end result was a failure.”
Mr. Nichols’s death had stirred intense anger and sorrow among many in the community, a pain that only intensified after people were able to watch roughly an hour of footage for themselves.
“I see why he ran — he was scared for his life,”said the Rev. James Earl Kirkwood, the executive director of the Memphis Christian Pastors Network and a retired colonel in the Police Department. “This has set back police relations in Black and brown communities in our city.”
DeVante Hill, an activist in Memphis, said he met with Chief Davis on Friday and presented a list of demands: Reprimand the superior of the charged officers, make investments at the community level to combat crime and completely overhaul training.
When Mr. Hill told Chief Davis that he also wanted Scorpion disbanded, he said her answer was instant and unequivocal: “Done,” she told him.
The decision to disband the unit was announced on Saturday as protesters marched through the city.
“You know what that means?” one of the protesters asked the crowd. “This worked.”
Hunter Dempster, an organizer with Decarcerate Memphis, a group pushing for accountability and fairness in the criminal justice system, called the development a “good start.”
“But it’s not enough,” Mr. Dempster clarified.
“We don’t want another Tyre,” he said. “We don’t want to be out in the streets again, so we’re in it for the long haul.”
Jessica Jaglois, Jesus Jiménez and Mark Walker contributed reporting from Memphis. Mike Baker also contributed reporting.