The brutal beating and killing of Tyre Nichols on January 7, 2023, by the Scorpion Unit of the Memphis Police Department (“MPD”) reveals the disconnect between law enforcement’s concept of law and order with society’s need to be protected and served. The very name “Scorpion” itself speaks directly to this disconnect.
The scorpion, a predatory arachnid known for its pinchers and curved tail ending with a venomous stinger, derives its name from the Latin word Scorpio, which means danger with potentially fatal consequences.
In Memphis, SCORPION was an acronym for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. The leadership in the MPD wanted to send a message to the “high crime areas” that it had created a dangerous rapid response unit ready to sting or kill anyone who dared challenge social order or its authority.
Police departments that create Scorpion-type units, especially those with tactical squad training, recruit the biggest, baddest, and most lethal officers for the teams. And the way departmental leadership conveys the policy objectives of these units allows the Scorpion officers to assume they have a license to harass, abuse, intimidate, and even kill the very citizens they swore an oath to protect and serve.
An editorial in The New York Times correctly observed, “These units tend to attract aggressive, rules-skirting officers who then bring in like-minded colleagues to join them…The name of the team gives the game away. You call a unit SCORPION or Strike Force because you want to instill fear and because you want to attract police officers who enjoy being feared.”
Every one of the Scorpions that physically abused or failed to assist Tyre Nichols were illegally administering vigilante-style street justice by aggressively dominating, abusing and killing their “suspect,” and they should all be prosecuted and stripped of their law enforcement credentials.
The police killing of Tyre Nichols immediately recalls the officers from the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit, “which launched in the city’s anarchic 1970s with the motto “We Own the Night,” who killed an unarmed Black student, Amadou Diallo, in 1999. They shot at him 41 times, striking him with 19 bullets, when he reached for something they said they feared was a gun, but was his wallet.” “Elite” police units also were complicit in the death of Eric Garner and many other
This corrupt mindset—one too often fueled by a crudely developed militarized fascist ideology—inevitably leads to excessive lethal and non-lethal use of force.
Take police shootings as an example.
While media outlets like the Washington Post and some private groups like Mapping Police Violence try to maintain data on police shootings, no comprehensive nationwide governmental database provides a complete accounting of police shootings, according to the Post.
This lack of public accounting prompted the Post and the Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program to serve public records requests for information from police departments with five or more lethal police shootings between 2015 and 2020. These media outlets received data from 156 of those departments. An analysis of this information revealed the following disturbing facts:
- These departments killed 2,137 people and wounded another 1,609 during those five years.
- For every five people the police killed, they shot four others who survived.
- The people who survived their police shooting wounds incurred debilitating injuries, emotional trauma, and legal fallout.
- Nearly all those who survived police shootings were men with drug addiction or mental health issues, homeless, or impoverished.
- Most survivors of police shootings, according to police records, were armed with guns at the time of the shooting incident.
- The widespread prevalence of guns in America prompts police training academies to train potential officers to shoot “center mass” at any serious or imminent threat to themselves or others.
- These police shooting incidents included about 7 percent of the police officers also being shot.
Evident in all the data compiled by the two media outlets is the racial disparity in police shootings. The Post reported that while Black Americans comprised 16 percent of the population in the communities where the shootings occurred, they represented 30 percent of those fatally shot and 44 percent of those wounded by the police.
The National Fraternal Order of Police, the largest police union in the nation, blamed poor Americans of color for this racial disparity.
Jim Pasco, the executive director of the group, told the Post:
“Police officers are deployed where the crime is, and crime is usually a lot more likely to occur in poor communities, underserved communities, and underrepresented communities, and so that’s where they are, and those communities, sadly, tend to be people of color.”
But Phillip Atiba Goff, the head of Yale University’s African-American studies, sees the issue through a different racial lens. He concludes police prioritize drugs and other “poverty-based” crimes, making it “more likely” for them to encounter Black Americans.
“We’ve chosen a set of things to criminalize, we’ve chosen a group of people to have constant police interactions, and those folks are the same folks who have been our most vulnerable,” he told the Post.
And therein lays the reason for the unapologetic culture of police violence.
Most police officers, especially in urban areas, are white and view crime as a “black problem.” They also view Black suspects as threats that need to be subdued. Besides killing and wounding Blacks at a disproportionate rate, these White officers disproportionately target Black Americans for “stop-and frisk,” highway traffic stops, “No-Knock” warrants, and the use of excessive force against them.
Many Black officers, like the ones who killed Tyre Nichols, are trained in the systemically racist policing regime and buy into this White cop mindset. Being part of a fraternity becomes more important than being a member of the community. They are like the very people civil rights activists had to struggle against to get them where they are.
The tragedy inherent in this mindset is that Black Americans, or any other racial minority group, are no more of a “crime problem” than White Americans. There are pockets of poverty and high crime rates in poor White communities, just as in similarly situated communities of color. Yet Scorpion units do not target these crime-infested White communities with the same aggressiveness as communities of color.
How did we reach this social crisis?
Historically, policing in America has always been infected with systemic racism. Communities of color are over policed and disproportionately abused.
Today Americans are also bitterly divided (and increasingly so) along political and racial lines. Roughly half the people in this nation want a multi-cultural, multi-racial America, while the other half want a White Christian Nationalist America. Half the people in this country want a Democracy-oriented America, while the other half wants a Republic of America with fascist leanings.
This country has more known guns in circulation than its 330 million-plus people, with probably another 100 to 200 million stashed away because of the increasing fear of civil war.
In the middle of this cultural, racial, and political divide—and the daily violence it spawns—are the police, who often appear as militarized occupiers of the communities they are sworn to “protect.”
While the SCORPION unit in Memphis has been disbanded, such teams remain common in major cities nationwide. With names like CRASH, RED DOG, STRESS, SOS and TITAN, these “special” units, trained with dominate and shoot-first military tactics, remain a recipe for disaster.
Americans do not need Scorpion police units for protection. They need trained guardians committed to “protecting and serving” their communities, not militarized Scorpions at war.