Memphis disbands police unit after deadly beating as protesters take to the streets

MEMPHIS, Tennessee, January 28 (Reuters) – The specialized police unit that included the five Memphis officers charged with fatally beating Tire Nichols was disbanded on Saturday as more protests erupted a day after harrowing video of the attack held in US cities.

The police department said in a statement that it is permanently disabling the SCORPION unit after the police chief spoke to members of Nichols’ family, community leaders and other officials. A police spokesman confirmed that all five officers were members of the unit.

Video footage from police body-worn cameras and a camera mounted on a utility pole showed Nichols, a 29-year-old black man, repeatedly yelling “Mom!” when officers kicked, punched, and beat him with a baton after a traffic stop on January 7 in his mother’s neighborhood. He was hospitalized and died of his injuries three days later.

Five officers involved in the beating, all black, were charged Thursday with murder, assault, kidnapping and other charges. All were released from the department.

Nichols’ family and officials expressed outrage and sadness but urged the protesters to remain peaceful. That plea was widely heeded on Friday as isolated protests erupted in Memphis — where protesters briefly blocked a freeway — and elsewhere.

Cities across the United States saw nonviolent demonstrations again on Saturday. In Memphis, protesters chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” yelled angrily at a police car monitoring the march, with several making obscene gestures. Some cheered loudly when they found out about the dissolution of SCORPION.

[1/12] People protest next to a police car after the release of body cam footage showing officers beating Tire Nichols, the young black man who died three days after he was stopped by Memphis police officers during a traffic stop in downtown Memphis . Tennessee, U.S. January 28, 2023. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Hundreds of protesters gathered in New York’s Washington Square Park before marching through Manhattan while columns of police officers walked alongside them.

Taken together, the four video clips released Friday showed police beating up Nichols even though he appeared not to pose a threat. The first traffic stop was for reckless driving, although the police chief said the reason for the stop was not explained.

The SCORPION unit, short for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighborhoods, was formed in October 2021 to focus on crime hotspots. Critics say such specialized teams can be vulnerable to abusive tactics.

Friends and family say Nichols was an easy-going, talented skateboarder who grew up in Sacramento, California and moved to Memphis before the coronavirus pandemic. As the father of a 4-year-old, Nichols worked at FedEx and had recently enrolled in a photography class.

Nate Spates Jr., 42, was part of a circle of friends including Nichols, who met at a local Starbucks.

“He liked what he liked, and he would march to the beat of his own drum,” Spates said, recalling that Nichols would go to a park called Shelby Farms to watch the sunset when he wasn’t on the late shift.

Nichols’ death is the latest high-profile case in which police use excessive force against black people and other minorities. The 2020 killing of George Floyd, a black man who died after a white Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for more than nine minutes, sparked global protests against racial injustice.

Reporting by Maria Cardona in Memphis, Tennessee and Diane Bartz in Washington; writing from Joseph Ax; Editing by Cynthia Osterman, Robert Birsel

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Diane Bartz

Thomson Reuters

Focused on US antitrust and corporate regulation and legislation, with experience covering the war in Bosnia, elections in Mexico and Nicaragua, and stories from Brazil, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Nigeria and Peru.

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