Former Memphis police officer on the SCORPION unit and the fired cops charged in Tyre Nichols' death
A former veteran Memphis city police officer who knew those involved in Tyre Nichols' violent arrest spoke to CBS News about one of the five ex-officers charged in the case, and the so-called SCORPION unit those five were members of.
He described the "proactive" approach of the ex-officer as someone who thought, if you didn't go after the bad guys aggressively you were not doing your job as a police officer.
"I never thought this would happen," the former officer told CBS News. The former officer, who recently left the department after 10 years, spoke only on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.
He said he knew each of the charged ex-officers and worked closely at times with one of them, Demetrius Haley. The five were fired from their jobs and are facing charges of second-degree murder for the brutal beating of Nichols after a Jan. 7 traffic stop.
Morale is very low at the Memphis Police Department right now, according to the former officer.
"This is not an indication of who the department is," he said. "We deal with very bad people. There are fights and foot chases but we all have an understanding when it's time to stop."
Tyre Nichols was arrested after Haley and and the four other officers — Tadarrius Bean, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith — stopped him for reckless driving. Video from the scene, released by the city on Friday, shows Nichols was severely beaten. He died three days later in the hospital.
The Director of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation David Rausch said he was "sickened" and "shocked,'' by the video footage he viewed of the beating. "Let me be clear: what happened here does not at all reflect proper policing. This was wrong. This was criminal.''
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy joined Rausch at the news conference Thursday to announce the charges against the five fired officers.
"We want justice for Tyre Nichols," Mulroy said. "…The world is watching us and we need to show the world what lessons we can learn from this tragedy."
In the interview with CBS News, the former Memphis police officer described 30-year-old Haley as "a young, athletic, confident guy."
But he said Haley did butt heads with others in the department for, in Haley's view, their not being aggressive enough in pursuing criminals.
CBS News is attempting to reach a representative of Haley's for comment.
Haley, a former Shelby County Corrections Officer, was a member of the hand-picked SCORPION team, a specialized unit formed in 2021 to fight violent street crime.
The name SCORPION stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. There are more than two dozen officers assigned to SCORPION teams. They wear black hoodies and tactical black vests with "POLICE" emblazoned across the front and back, and drive dark colored Dodge Chargers marked with a SCORPION seal.
The crime-suppression teams patrol in groups and at times use justified low-level traffic stops as a way to find violent criminals, drugs or weapons.
"You have to be a go-getter, for the most part," to join the SCORPION unit, the former officer told CBS News. "You have to be someone who wants to make a difference, who wants to catch the bad guy."
In a news bulletin published on Jan. 27, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said, "Since this event happened, the SCORPION Unit has been and remains inactive," though he didn't clarify when the unit was deactivated. Strickland also said that the city is "initiating an outside, independent review of the training, policies and operations of our specialized units."
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn "CJ" Davis told CNN that investigators "have not been able to substantiate" the initial report of reckless driving that prompted Nichols' arrest. And Nichols family attorney Antonio Romanucci questioned the justification for the stop, saying on CNN, "we know that the saturation and suppression units do use pretext to stop in order to carry out this … wolf pack mentality of policing."
The former Memphis officer who spoke with CBS News said with a large number of officers retiring from the department, younger, less experienced members of the department were being tapped for the specialized SCORPION teams. They were not well-trained and not properly managed, he said, describing the training as consisting of three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of criminal apprehension instruction and one day at the firing range.
The Memphis Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The officers charged in Nichols' death were hired from 2017 to 2020. They were 24 to 32 years old.
"You have to have crime suppression units,'' the former officer said. "You can't get crime down by only showing up at schools and talking to the kids and putting up posters."
He stressed that the department is made up of truly dedicated officers committed to their mission, committed to helping people.
"They still have to go out each day and get to work. They still have to fight crime."
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