Memphis disbands police unit in fatal beating; more protests expected
By Maria Cardona and Diane Bartz
MEMPHIS, Tenn. (Reuters) -The specialized police unit that included the five Memphis officers charged with the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols was disbanded on Saturday as more protests took place in U.S. cities a day after harrowing video of the attack was released.
The police department said in a statement it was permanently deactivating the SCORPION unit after the police chief spoke with members of Nichols’ family, community leaders and other officers. A police spokesperson confirmed all five officers were members of the unit.
Video recordings from police body-worn cameras and a camera mounted on a utility pole showed Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, repeatedly screaming “Mom!” as officers kicked, punched and struck him with a baton in his mother’s neighborhood after a Jan. 7 traffic stop. He was hospitalized and died of his injuries three days later.
Five officers involved in the beating, all Black, were charged on Thursday with murder, assault, kidnapping and other charges. All have been dismissed from the department.
Nichols’ family and officials expressed outrage and sorrow but urged protesters to remain peaceful. That request was largely heeded on Friday when scattered protests broke out in Memphis – where marchers briefly blocked an interstate highway – and elsewhere.
Cities across the United States saw renewed nonviolent demonstrations on Saturday. In Memphis, protesters chanting, “Whose streets? Our streets!” angrily catcalled a police car that was monitoring the march, with several making obscene gestures. Some cheered loudly when they learned of the disbandment of SCORPION.
Hundreds of protesters gathered in New York’s Washington Square Park before marching through Manhattan, as columns of police officers walked alongside them.
Taken together, the four video clips released Friday showed police pummeling Nichols even though he appeared to pose no threat. The initial traffic stop was for reckless driving, though the police chief has said the cause for the stop has not been substantiated.
The SCORPION unit, short for the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods, was formed in October 2021 to concentrate on crime hot spots. Critics say such specialized teams can be prone to abusive tactics.
Friends and family say Nichols was an affable, talented skateboarder who grew up in Sacramento, California, and moved to Memphis before the coronavirus pandemic. The father of a 4-year-old child, Nichols worked at FedEx and had recently enrolled in a photography class.
Nate Spates Jr., 42, was part of a circle of friends, including Nichols, who met up at a Starbucks in the area.
“He liked what he liked, and he marched to the beat of his own drum,” Spates said, remembering that Nichols would go to a park called Shelby Farms to watch the sunset when he wasn’t working a late shift.
Nichols’ death is the latest high-profile instance of police using excessive force against Black people and other minorities. The 2020 murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, galvanized worldwide protests over racial injustice.
(Reporting by Maria Cardona in Memphis, Tennessee, and Diane Bartz in Washington; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Robert Birsel)