Memphis police culture comes under scrutiny after Nichols beating
“Residents describe violent tactics allegedly used by the police department, which is now confronting deepening questions about the supervision and training of its officers
“The eight men wearing black, hooded sweatshirts and ski masks seemed to appear out of nowhere as Monterrious Harris sat in his car outside his cousin’s apartment on Jan. 4.
They shouted profanities and ordered him out of the car, he later recalled.
“I will shoot you!” one of the men said, according to Harris. “I will shoot you!”
Harris said he quickly threw the black Chrysler 300 into reverse. Then he saw tactical vests worn by the men and realized they might be law enforcement. He got out and raised his hands. The officers swarmed him with punches, he said.
Among the Memphis police officers who surrounded Harris were the same five men charged with fatally beating motorist Tyre Nichols at a traffic stop just three days later, according to police records obtained by The Washington Post.
Lawyers for Harris this week filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit in federal court in Tennessee against the city of Memphis and the officers, alleging the city and officers had violated Harris’s civil rights and sanctioned an unconstitutional system of policing. A police spokeswoman said the department does not comment on pending litigation.
Harris is among a number of Memphis residents who have come forward since Nichols’s killing to describe violent tactics allegedly used by the Memphis Police Department, which is now confronting deepening questions about the supervision and training of its officers.
The five officers who were fired and charged in Nichols’s death were members of Scorpion unit, the most significant crime-fighting measure during the 20-month tenure of Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, celebrated in public announcements of monthly tallies of guns, drugs and cash seized.
The unit’s strategy of “hot-spot” policing is now under scrutiny, along with the broader culture of a department that has struggled to hire officers as crime has risen in the city. Memphis Police Department officials they are conducting a review of the Scorpion unit and other specialized groups within the department.
“The unit did good work,” Davis said of the Scorpion unit in an interview with The Post on Jan. 27. The unit arrested over 2,000 violent felons and seized over 800 illegal guns, she said. “This group, we believe, went off the rails that night.”
People familiar with the department say it must wrestle with deeper challenges, including an acute staffing crisis. Memphis police were down to 1,938 officers by the second week of February, after losing 22 officers in the last month alone, according to city data. Memphis officials have said they have been aggressively recruiting to reach a goal of 2,300 officers by the end of the year.
In an effort to bring in more recruits, department officials changed the requirements and standards for joining the force, like easing the physical fitness requirements and softening restrictions on hiring applicants with criminal convictions. The short staffing and long hours took a toll in an environment in which there were not enough seasoned managers in the department, according to one former officer who recently left.
“If you’re constantly overworked, constantly around bad guys — rapists, robbers and guys that want to do people harm — and you don’t have that buffer in senior leadership saying, ‘Don’t take this stuff personally,’ it really will envelop you,” said the former officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the internal dynamics. “Honestly, this was inevitable, whether it was these guys or somebody else.”
As the city processes one of the most violent cases of police brutality ever recorded, Memphis leaders are asking themselves the same question being debated in many communities nationwide about policing: Were these five officers evidence of institutional rot, or were they rogue actors now casting a dark shadow over a healthy police department?
Local officials are also questioning the leadership of Davis, who rose to national prominence as the outspoken, reform-minded Durham police chief in North Carolina after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020. She upset tradition as the first outsider hired to lead the Memphis Police Department in decades. Davis did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
“There is no way it can be an isolated incident,” said Memphis City Council Co-Chair J.B. Smiley (D), 35, who is Black. “It seems to be a police culture — not just in Memphis, but across the country — where officers seem to move as if they are above the law.”
Bill Gibbons (R), president of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, said the officers he knows in the department were horrified and saddened by the video of Nichols’s beating. “I do not think that the conduct that you’ve seen from these officers is a reflection of the culture at the Memphis Police Department,” said Gibbons, 72, who is White. “Every law enforcement agency is going to end up with some bad apples.”
On Jan. 7, two officers stopped at an intersection, blue lights flashing against the night sky. A voice over the radio told them that Nichols, who had sprinted down the street after an officer Tasered him, had been found. One of the officers faced the empty crossing. “I hope they stomp his ass,” officer Preston Hemphill said, according to a recording later released by the police department.
Footage showed five officers with the Scorpion unit doing just that. They kicked, shocked, pepper sprayed and punched Nichols as he crumpled in pain, repeatedly asking the officers “please stop” and crying out for his mother.
The prescient declaration by Hemphill, who was not among those who beat Nichols but was also fired, reflected the sort of bravado the former Scorpion unit officer said he often heard from older, supervising officers. The former officer, who worked in another group within the unit before recently leaving the department, knows each of the five officers charged with killing Nichols.
“Decades ago, it was said, if you run, you’re gonna get beat up. That changed,” the former officer said. “But you still have lieutenants who talk about how great it was back in the day, because if somebody punched you, you sent them to the hospital. So then you get these rookies on that say, ‘Man, that sounds awesome.’”
The former officer described a unit devoid of middle managers who might temper the impulses of inexperienced officers. Instead, the unit was staffed with officers who had less than 10 years on the job, owing to an officer shortage and work schedules that shifted day to day, discouraging older officers from applying. The former officer said officers were asked to police violence-plagued neighborhoods, and given informal permission to engage in car chase scenarios forbidden by department policy.
And the officers were overworked, the former officer said, clocking more than 70 hours per week, while earning thousands of dollars in overtime pay. The department did not respond to a request for comment on the officer’s assessment.
While some officers in the unit recognized its flaws, city officials said they saw few indications the Scorpion unit had become a problem. The department revealed on Jan. 31 that four of the five officers had received past discipline from the department, including for failing to properly file paperwork regarding use of force. But Memphis City Council members and the head of the citizen review board said they had not heard complaints naming the individuals or the unit in its 14 months of existence.
That changed after Nichols’s death. Multiple people across Memphis began to share stories with journalists and civil rights attorneys of Memphis police officers quickly resorting to violence, often without explanation. The Memphis Police Department declined to comment on individual cases, saying it is “working to learn more about these incidents and will follow up when the review is complete.”
Harris said in an interview that his forehead hit the concrete sidewalk on the night he encountered officers. He was arrested for possession of 35.2 grams of marijuana, about an ounce, and unlawful possession of a firearm among other related charges, according to police records. Police said Harris had driven toward officers, tried to evade them on foot, and disregarded their demands before he was detained. The charging document did not mention any physical confrontation.
Harris’s attorney, Robert Spence, in the lawsuit, said the gun belonged to Harris’s cousin, who brought it into the car without telling Harris. Spence also denied that Harris had drugs on him, saying in an interview, “they totally fabricated that … that is the fabricated pretext for the stop.”
Spence said he requested body-camera footage from the police department last week but has not heard back. Harris was still healing from cuts and bruises when the video of Nichols getting Tasered and hit by police was released on Jan. 27.
“I felt bad because I came home to my family but he didn’t make it to his,” Harris told The Post. Since his confrontation with police, Harris said he has tried to stay at home as much as possible to avoid law enforcement. “There is a pattern of activity by this unit,” said Robert Spence, Harris’s attorney. “It’s a culture within the department where they will brutalize citizens and violate the law.”
In different incident in June, a white car pulled over Darick Lane, 32, in the Hickory Hills neighborhood because, Lane and the police department said, the windows of his Nissan Altima were tinted.
He said the officers, including Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith, yanked him out of the car window, one holding him by his feet and the other by his arms. They threatened to shoot him if he moved, put him in handcuffs and then searched his car, according to Lane and his attorney, Alexander Wharton, in interviews. Wharton said he has not requested body-camera footage because Lane has not expressed interest in pursuing civil action.
The police department, in charging documents, said officers stopped Lane for tinted windows, smelled a “strong odor” of marijuana, “conducted a pat down” and found a pistol in his pocket. The officers detained him for the “odor of illegal narcotics” and charged him with unlawful possession of a firearm and possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell, among others. The charges were later dropped.
In August, Tikee Patrick, 46, said police beat up her son, 23-year-old Tyson Walker, while he was waiting for a tow truck for his sister and her boyfriend. She said the officers had asked him to get out of his sister’s boyfriend’s vehicle without explanation. Walker said he asked the police what he had done wrong, and then, when one officer tried to grab him, replied, “Officer, you don’t have to touch me. I will step out the car myself,” according to a transcript of his statement to police. Then, the officers started beating him up.
Seven of the officers were uniformed and not part of the Scorpion unit, and one was dressed in all black and possibly a member of the unit, according to Patrick. Patrick said she arrived outside an apartment complex, not far from where Nichols lived, and saw her son handcuffed in the back seat of a cruiser. His clothes were torn, and his eyes were still red and teary from what she later learned was pepper spray.
In an interview with detectives after the incident, Walker said, “An officer also shouldn’t punch somebody in the face. An officer shouldn’t kick somebody in the head while on the floor. And an officer shouldn’t pepper spray a man while also in handcuffs,” according to the transcript of the conversation.
Police, in charging documents, said that Walker started yelling at officers while they were attempting to tow the car and struck an officer in the face when he “attempted to remove him” from that vehicle. Police said an officer then deployed pepper spray and placed Walker into custody.
Walker and his sister both filed a complaint with the city’s Inspectional Services Nureau, asking the bureau to investigate the officers in the incident. Walker also requested a copy of the body-camera footage from that day. A representative from the public records office told her in an email, which was reviewed by The Post, that the footage would cost her more than $600.
Patrick said she and her lawyer are looking into how to obtain that footage for free and how to sue the police department and the individual officers for violating her son’s rights and abusing their power. Police charged Walker with assaulting them. The case was later dropped.
In an interview with The Post on Jan. 27, Davis said she was committed to the good work of the unit, promising she that would not “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Less than 24 hours later, the department announced it was disbanding the Scorpion unit and reassigning the remaining officers.
Smiley, the city council member, said it was an important, if obvious, next step. But he would like to see many more changes. He is hoping Nichols’s death can lead to a rejection of traditional policing in ways that Floyd’s death failed to.
“We have to invest in these communities and give people a reason to hope,” Smiley said, “to believe they can get out of these cycles of generational poverty. We can’t police our way out of this.”
In the days since the release of the Nichols footage, local leaders have asked themselves how things ever got so bad. Many point to the department’s staffing shortage, owing to a national police recruiting lull, despite the department’s efforts to widen the applicant pool. A police spokeswoman said the department has a “short-term goal” of reaching 2,300 officers by the end of this year, though they are budgeted for 2,500.
In 2018, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said the department had lowered recruiting standards to eliminate a requirement that applicants to the police academy have an associate’s degree or 54 semester hours of college. If a recruit had a high school degree and steady employment for five years since high school, the department said, it would defer the college requirement to four years down the road.
Two of the officers involved in the Nichols episode, Demetrius Haley and Tadarrius Bean each joined in 2020. A 2016 lawsuit filed by a Shelby County Jail inmate alleged Haley was part of a group of corrections officers who slammed the inmate’s head into a sink because he tried to run from them, according to court records. The suit was dismissed after the inmate, who represented himself, was not able to properly serve the defendants with notice of the suit.
The department remained short-staffed after the requirement shifts, owing in part to a controversial city council decision to slash health insurance for former officers and pension benefits in 2014, local officials said.
In 2022, it eased physical fitness requirements, raising the time required to run 1.5 miles from 15.5 minutes to 17.5 minutes. Additionally, the department said it would evaluate criminal histories on a case-by-case basis rather than barring applicants with criminal convictions. Current police officers have been reluctant to recommend the department to prospective recruits, according to current and former officers who spoke with The Post.
Three current officers, each from different units of the department, spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with members of the media. They described a department they feel has been hamstrung by legislative changes after Floyd’s killing and in a state of triage when it comes to violent crime. “We are the opposite of a proactive department,” a fourth-year patrol officer told The Post.
Floyd’s killing and the subsequent public backlash against policing being perceived by officers has had a lasting, damaging effect on officer morale, said Chase Carlisle, a city council member. “I don’t have any patience for defunding police. Police play a pivotal role in safety, and the large majority can do the job right,” Carlisle said.
“You have people who say the whole system is institutionally, this, that and the other. I just don’t have time for that. That’s not pragmatic and that’s not true. They need the training and support to do the job correctly so that we don’t continue the downward spiral,” Carlisle added.
In Memphis, police have been one of the few entities that has not had its budget slashed in recent years. Over the last decade, the city saw a 40 percent increase in city budget and 80 percent of that increase went to police and fire, said Memphis City Council Co-Chair Martavius Jones.
But violence continued to surge in the city. In 2021, Memphis set an record for number of killings, with 346 homicides, according to the department. Davis turned to a strategy she employed during her early-career tenure in Atlanta, with mixed results: directed patrols. Also known as “hot-spot” policing, the specialized patrol units were popularized during the late 1980s and early 1990s in Los Angeles, New York City and Atlanta to target high-crime areas with proactive enforcement.
The practice has become widespread and typically targets predominantly Black and Brown communities that have been historically disenfranchised and neglected by government and private interests, said Robert Kane, head of Drexel University’s Department of Criminology and Justice Studies.
“When you’ve got multiple cities in the United States under federal consent decrees because of stop and frisk practices, that should tell you something about the constitutionality of these police tactics,” Kane said.
Atlanta stood up a similar directed patrol unit in 1989 known as the Red Dog unit, aimed at creating a saturating street presence to disrupt the illegal drug trade. Davis oversaw that unit and the SWAT and narcotics teams as special operations section commander from June 2006 to November 2007.
The Red Dog unit came under scrutiny after the city of Atlanta settled a lawsuit for more than $1 million after a 2009 raid in which officers shouted gay slurs as they raided a gay bar, throwing customers to the ground and handcuffing them. More men came forward in the aftermath to allege years of unconstitutional treatment at the hands of the unit. Red Dog folded in 2011.
When the footage of the Nichols beating was released, the former officer said he was sickened by what he saw on the video, not only for its brutality, but because he understood how the officers became capable of it. He said he had been shot at three times in his last 18 months as a member of the Scorpion unit and sought therapy as a result. He had felt the urge in the past to strike a suspect guilty of an egregious crime beyond what was necessary to subdue him, but held back.
His team had the kind of veteran officers who warned one another when they sensed someone was getting tunnel vision and close to losing control. Scorpion Team 1, the team involved in the Nichols beating, did not have that chemistry or proper supervision, the officer said, and it spiraled out of control.
“I believe these guys are 100 percent criminally responsible, but 90 percent personally responsible,” he said of the accused officers. “The department is responsible for that other 10 percent.”
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