ATLANTA — Five members of a Memphis police specialized “crime suppression” unit were fired and charged with second-degree murder and other felonies Jan. 26 after city authorities reviewed videos showing them brutally beating Tyre Nichols 19 days earlier. The 29-year-old FedEx worker died three days after the beating. The video was released to the public Jan. 27.
Memphis is 64% African American and both Nichols and the cops who beat him to death are Black. The cops arrested were Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith.
Three EMTs have since been fired for violation of department policies and procedures. Two county deputies and two Memphis cops have been suspended pending internal investigations.
Cops from the city’s Scorpion unit had stopped Nichols that night, allegedly for “reckless driving.” Such “specialized” units are used in cities across the country in so-called high crime neighborhoods. They often drive unmarked cars in plainclothes and employ traffic stops as a pretext to search for weapons and drugs, without probable cause.
Scorpion stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods.
The video shows the cops are already amped up when they stop Nichols. One cop can be seen on the videos running up to Nichols’ car ordering him to “get the f–k out!” Other cops join in dragging him from the car and throwing him on the ground. He is never asked for his driver’s license, insurance and registration or told what he had done.
There are no signs of resistance by Nichols. He complies with their commands only asking, “What have I done?” The cops repeatedly pepper spray his eyes. Nichols is shocked with a Taser gun and another cop can be heard through police body cameras threatening to break his arm. In fear for his life Nichols manages to break free and run.
Other cops join the chase, recapturing Nichols at a corner just doors from his home. A security camera on a nearby light pole along with audio from the cops’ body cameras provide a striking record of the savage beating that ensues.
Five cops are directly involved in the beating. Another five can be seen standing around watching. While some cops hold Nichols on the ground two others take turns kicking him in the head. Another cop is heard shouting at Nichols, “I’ll baton the f–k out of you!” Then he strikes the defenseless man twice.
Nichols calls out for his mother.
Two cops stand Nichols up while another punches him in the face. Nichols appears to collapse under the blow, but the cops hold him up to suffer more blows to the face. “Man I was hitting him with straight haymakers, dog,” one cop later boasted.
The cops finally handcuff Nichols and drag him to the side of a squad car sitting him up. For nearly half an hour they show no concern for Nichols’ injuries even though they have to sit him back up several times after he collapses on his side. Instead, one of them complains of hurting his knee during the chase. Another blames Nichols for getting pepper spray in the cops’ eyes.
As the cops mill around fist bumping and congratulating themselves they began to put together their story to justify the beating. “He’s got to be on drugs to take those punches and the Taser,” one of them claims. Another says Nichols tried to reach for his gun.
In an interview with ABC News, RowVaughn Wells, Nichols’ mother, describes how police attempted to cover up the extent of the injuries to her son. She said police told her that he was stunned by a Taser and pepper sprayed. When she saw him in the hospital, she knew the encounter was much worse.
“They had him on all these breathing machines. He’d already went into cardiac arrest and his kidneys were failing,” she said. “He was a human piñata for those police officers. Not only was it violent, it was savage.”
Scorpion unit disbanded
Under growing pressure Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis announced Jan. 28 that the Scorpion unit had been deactivated. She had set up the unit and had insisted the day before that she wouldn’t shut it down because a few officers committed “some egregious act.”
“The whole idea that the Scorpion unit is a bad unit, I just have a problem with that,” she said.
Scorpion was launched in October 2021. The unit had 40 cops in four teams concentrating on crime “hot spots” and targeting drag racing, car theft, gangs and other crimes.
In its first few months Scorpion made 566 arrests — 390 for felonies — and seized tens of thousands of dollars and over 240 weapons. There were many complaints of disrespect and brutality.
As part of a “transparency program,” the Memphis police department publishes accountability reports that include the race of people subjected to the use of force each year. The reports from 2019 to 2021 show that Blacks were disproportionately targeted, making up 86% of the victims in 2021.
A sixth cop, Preston Hemphill, who is Caucasian and was part of the initial traffic stop of Nichols, was relieved of duty but not charged or fired. According to ABC News, he deployed his Taser during the stop. As Nichols attempted to run away, Hemphill is heard saying, “I hope they stomp his ass!” But he wasn’t present at the actual beating.
Nichols’ stepfather, Rodney Wells, told the press that all those involved in any aspect of his son’s death should be charged.
Modest protests against the murder took place in Memphis and nationwide, reflecting the fact the cops involved had been charged with murder and face up to 60 years in prison. Nichols’ parents urged people to protest, and urged them to do so without violence or disruption, a request that was largely followed.