(New York) January 26, 2022: In his State of the City address, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, champion of law and order, praises the results achieved by a brand new unit of police.
“Since its creation last October until January 23, 2022, the Scorpion unit has made 566 arrests, including 390 for misdemeanors. She seized over $103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons,” lists Memphis’ first white mayor in 24 years (at the time of his election to the post in 2015).
Jan. 10, 2023: At a press conference, Jim Strickland once again touts the Scorpion unit, crediting the work of its roughly 40 members with a slight drop in homicides in Memphis, where such crime hit a 2021 record .
The same day, Tire Nichols passed away in hospital, some 72 hours after being beaten with punches, kicks and truncheons by members of the Scorpion unit.
If Jim Strickland read the initial report of the arrest of the 29-year-old African American, he could not have suspected that five black police officers from Memphis had behaved towards him like real scorpions, these predators who hunt the night and feed on their live prey.
The police report mentions an attempted traffic stop “for dangerous driving” around 8:30 p.m. on January 7, 2023, and the driver’s flight on foot, between two confrontations with the police. Confrontations about which no details are offered. The document notes, however, that the suspect, after being subdued, “complained of difficulty breathing, and an ambulance was called to the scene. The suspect was transported to St. Francis Hospital in critical condition.
In Memphis, the assassination of Tire Nichols aroused strong reactions, in particular reviving the memory of Elton Hayes, a 17-year-old black teenager beaten to death by local police officers, on October 15, 1971. The comparison between the two murders illustrates both how much the police and the city of Memphis have changed, in some ways, and how much they are still the same, in other ways. The story no doubt applies to many other police departments and cities across North America.
In the case of Elton Hayes, the police report stated that he suffered fatal injuries in the crash of the type pickup truck. pickup in which he was fleeing with two other black teenagers. Hayes died in hospital, nearly eight hours after the crash.
A preliminary autopsy – and a week of rioting in Memphis – led Shelby County Attorney General Philip Canale, however, to charge nine officers – all of them white with one exception – for murder and attempted murder. These representatives of the order were accused of having bludgeoned Elton Hayes to death and of having come close to reserving the same fate for his companions, aged 15 and 14.
In December 1973, four police officers had their trial for the murder of Elton Hayes. They were acquitted by an all-white male jury after three and a half hours of deliberation.
Nearly 50 years later, the first shock to the citizens of Memphis, the majority of whom are black, was to discover that the five police officers charged with the murder of Tire Nichols are themselves black. The second shock came when watching the videos showing the horrific beating inflicted on the “suspect”, who offers no resistance.
The shock is all the greater as the torture of Tire Nichols comes after a great questioning of the police work which followed the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, in May 2020. In Memphis, Mayor Strickland has set up a advisory committee which produced a report entitled Reimagining Policing (Reimagine the font).
The police department implemented some of the committee’s recommendations, including banning chokeholds and training in de-escalation techniques. The “duty to intervene” has also become a service policy.
“Any member who directly observes another member engaging in dangerous or criminal behavior or abuse on a subject shall take reasonable steps to intervene,” reads the City of Memphis Policing Reforms website. since the death of George Floyd.
Did the members of the Scorpion unit have reason to believe that these reforms did not apply to them?
Their mission was to patrol the hot spots of Memphis in marked cars, on the lookout for gang members and any illegal activity.
To accomplish this mission, they relied in particular on road checks, like the one that led to the death of Tire Nichols. We may learn that this roadside check was not justified by any valid reason.
Had the five members of the Scorpion unit forgotten the meaning of this name, or rather this acronym, which was as follows: Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods?
Announcing the unit’s dismantling on Saturday, Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis acknowledged that the unit had lost the credibility needed to continue its operations to “bring peace to our neighborhoods.”
And here are the Memphis police back to square one. Despite her efforts to reimagine her work after the murder of George Floyd, she continued to spawn predators. She is probably not the only one to still be there.
But things are changing. The executioners of Tire Nichols will not be judged by a jury composed entirely of white men, unlike those of Elton Hayes. And they will have to defend themselves against damning videos.