Tyre Nichols death: Specialised police unit disbanded amid protests across the US

Tyre Nichols, who died three days after he was pulled over while driving during a traffic stop by Memphis police officers, speaking about waiting in line at Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento, California. Photo: Screen grab taken from a social media video taken in July 2018 obtained by Reuters on July 27, 2023/ Bryan Anderson

Memphis (Tennessee): The specialised 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 US 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.

The nation and the city of Memphis struggled to come to grips with a video showing police pummelling Tyre Nichols footage that left many unanswered questions about the traffic stop involving the Black motorist and about other law enforcement officers who stood by as he lay motionless on the pavement.

The five former Memphis Police Department officers, who are also Black, have been fired and charged with murder and other crimes in Nichols' death three days after the arrest.

The video released on Friday renewed questions about how fatal encounters with law enforcement continue even after repeated calls for change.

The recording shows police savagely beating Nichols, a 29-year-old FedEx worker, for three minutes while screaming profanities at him in an assault that the Nichols family legal team has likened to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King. Nichols calls out for his mother before his limp body is propped against a squad car and the officers exchange fist-bumps.

The five officers Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith face up to 60 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.

Memphis Police Director Cerelyn CJ Davis has said that other officers are under investigation, and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said two deputies have been relieved of duty without pay while their conduct is investigated.

Rodney Wells, Nichols' stepfather, said the family would continue to seek justice" and noted that several other officers failed to render aid, making them just as culpable as the officers who threw the blows.

A Memphis police spokeswoman declined to comment on the role played by other officers who showed up at the scene.

Widespread protests

People hold signs during a protest following the release of videos showing Memphis police officers beating Tyre Nichols, who died while hospitalized three days later, in New York on January 28, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/David Dee Delgado

Cities nationwide had braced for demonstrations, but the protests were scattered and nonviolent.

Several dozen demonstrators in Memphis blocked the Interstate 55 bridge that carries traffic over the Mississippi River toward Arkansas. Protesters also blocked traffic in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.

Blake Ballin, the lawyer for Mills, said on Saturday that the videos produced as many questions as they have answers. Some of the questions will focus on what Mills knew and what he was able to see" and whether his actions "crossed the lines that were crossed by other officers during this incident, Ballin said.

The arrest was made by the so-called Scorpion unit, which has three teams of about 30 street officers who target violent offenders in areas beset by high crime, Davis said.

In an interview on Friday, she said she would not shut down a unit if a few officers commit some egregious act and because she needs that unit to continue to work.

A few hours later, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said the unit has been inactive since the January 7 arrest.

The city was "initiating an outside, independent review of the training, policies, and operations of our specialised units, Strickland said in a statement.

Davis acknowledged that the police department has a supervisor shortage and said the lack of a supervisor in the arrest was a major problem." City officials have pledged to provide more of them.

Unanswered questions

People protest next to a police car after the release of the body cam footage showing police officers beating Tyre Nichols, the young Black man who died three days after he was pulled over while driving during a traffic stop by Memphis police officers, in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, US. Photo: REUTERS/Leah Millis

Questions swirled around what led to the traffic stop in the first place. One officer can be heard saying that Nichols wouldn't stop and then swerved as though he intended to hit the officer's car. The officer said that when Nichols pulled up to a red light, the officers jumped out of the car.

But Davis said the department cannot substantiate the reason for the stop.

We don't know what happened, she said, adding, All we know is the amount of force that was applied in this situation was over the top.

After the first officer roughly pulls Nichols out of the car, Nichols can be heard saying, I didn't do anything, as a group of officers begins to wrestle him to the ground.

One officer is heard yelling, Tase him! Tase him!. Nichols calmly says, OK, I'm on the ground." You guys are really doing a lot right now, Nichols says. “I'm just trying to go home”. Stop, I'm not doing anything! he yells moments later.

Nichols can then be seen running as an officer fires a Taser at him. His mother's home, where he lived, was only a few houses away from the scene of the beating, and his family said he was trying to get there. The officers then start chasing Nichols.

Other officers are called, and a search ensues before Nichols is caught at another intersection. The officers beat him with a baton, and kick and punch him.  

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