Memphis’s Policing Strategy Was Bound to Result in Tragedy

The officers charged in Tyre Nichols’s death were all members of the SCORPION team, which poured law-enforcement resources into the most violent parts of the city.

Picture of Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy speaking during a press conference updating the public on the investigation into the death of Tyre Nichols, in Memphis, Tenn. on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023.
Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy speaks during a press conference on the investigation into the death of Tyre Nichols. (Brad Vest / The New York Times / Redux)

Like many American cities, Memphis, Tennessee, has a long history of vexed relationships between the police and Black citizens. Also like many cities, it has seen an increase in activism for police reform in recent years. But over the past two years, as I reported on policing in Memphis, I heard laments from activists that they struggled to bring the attention of elected officials and a broad swath of citizens to the problems they saw.

The lack of attention may no longer be an issue—at least for now.

Earlier this month, 29-year-old Tyre Nichols died after an encounter with officers near his home. Officials initially said Nichols was stopped for reckless driving. They described a confrontation with officers and said Nichols tried to flee before another confrontation. How true this account is remains to be seen. No footage of the incident has yet been made public, but the city is expected to release it this evening.

Whatever happened, officers beat Nichols, who was taken away in an ambulance and died three days later, on January 10. Everyone who has seen the footage describes it as horrific. On January 20, Memphis Police Chief C. J. Davis fired the five officers involved. Yesterday, Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy announced second-degree-murder charges against the men.

“In a word, it’s absolutely appalling,” David Rausch, the director of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, said of the video during a press conference yesterday. “I’m shocked; I’m sickened by what I saw and what we learned through our investigation.”

What I heard from Memphians during my reporting was that the city is simultaneously underpoliced and overpoliced. Residents, especially Black ones in areas with high crime, complain about rampant violence. (Nichols and all five officers in this case are Black.) They don’t want to defund or abolish the police; they want criminals locked up and safe streets. But they also complain that officers focus too much on minor offenses while serious criminals walk free.

Beyond that, many Memphians describe a police department prone to excessive force and abuses. After George Floyd’s murder, Mayor Jim Strickland convened a group to reimagine local policing, and although activists said they were shut out of the process, even that team’s report described widespread fear and distrust of the cops. The department has also repeatedly illegally surveilled activists. Through all of that, it has struggled to make any dent in the city’s violent-crime rate. City and police officials refused to explain or defend their strategy to me.

The officers charged in Nichols’s death were all members of the SCORPION team, a unit that Davis formed shortly after taking over the department in 2021. (The name stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.) It’s a classic example of hot-spot policing, a tactic that aims to reduce crime by concentrating officers in locations with large numbers of crimes.

Hot-spot policing has a proven record of success in many places, but it also elevates the risk of anyone in the area getting swept up by police. “Point me to the ideal neighborhood in any community in the country, or any suburban community,” the Reverend Earle Fisher, a veteran Memphis activist, told me in 2021. “Guess what you don’t see? Any police officers.”
Officials have not provided very much detail about why Nichols, who reportedly did not have a criminal record, was stopped, but a lawyer for Nichols’s family said that officers were conducting traffic stops in unmarked cars. “This is a pretextual traffic stop, which, let’s call it what it is: It’s a racist traffic stop,” he said at a press conference.
The problem with a troubled department like Memphis’s adopting a tool like hot-spot policing is that culture tends to triumph over tactics. If police are accustomed to making questionable stops or regularly use excessive force against suspects, they’ll probably continue to do those things. Davis has now ordered a review of the SCORPION unit.
One reason the Nichols case has gotten so much more attention than previous examples of police violence in Memphis is District Attorney Mulroy, who was elected last year as a reformist candidate, defeating the longtime incumbent Amy Weirich, a tough-on-crime prosecutor. History shows he’ll have a tough task ahead of him; even when police officers are charged in civilians deaths, convictions are infrequent. But scrutiny of the city’s law-enforcement strategy is overdue. Memphians deserve to live in safety—from both violent crime and their own police department.