One month prior to Nichols arrest, activists made city council presentation over fears of violent traffic stops in Memphis- QHN
A month before Tyre Nichols arrest and death, activists and organizers gave a presentation at the Memphis City Council public safety committee hearing to highlight their concern about violent pretextual traffic stops in the city they say led to the death or injury of five people since 2013, video from the committee hearing shows.
Activists with Decarcerate Memphis made their presentation on December 6, almost exactly one month to the day Nichols was brutally beaten during a traffic stop by members of the now disbanded Scorpion unit.
There was no specific reference to the Scorpion unit during the presentation, a review by CNN found.
Among those at the committee hearing were Police Chief Cerelyn Davis and council members JB Smiley, Dr. Jeff Warren, Worth Morgan, Michalyn Easter-Thomas and Chase Carlisle.
To highlight some of the danger of police stops, activists listed some of the people who had been harmed, including Anjustine Hunter, who was killed by police in 2013 after being pulled over for vehicle registration; Darrius Stewart, who was killed in 2015 after being pulled over for a headlight issue, and D’Mario Perkins, who died in 2018 after being pulled over for vehicle registration. According to CNN affiliate WMC, the Shelby county prosecutor in 2019 declined to file charges in Perkins’ death after the medical examiner ruled his shooting a suicide. According to investigators, two officers opened fire at the traffic stop after Perkins fired his weapon, the station reported.
Two others were reported to be wounded during traffic stops in 2018, and 2021, respectively.
According to the group’s analysis of traffic stops in Memphis using police data, Black male drivers in the city were disproportionately stopped by Memphis police officers, being cited 3.4 times more than White male drivers, while Black women were cited 4.7 times as often as White women in the city. The group said Black Memphians under 30 were cited six times as often as White Memphians under 30, also according to its analysis of police data
The group argued that the action of pretextual stops were “discriminatory,” “counterproductive” and “dangerous” to residents of the city.
“For a city that has the kind of traffic problems that we have, traffic enforcement is important. However, we do not want to enforce traffic from a standpoint of profiling any particular community, any particular group,” the pollce chief said at the committee hearing in response to the data presented. “We do live in a city that’s predominately African American. We do live in a city that has problems in our African American community.”
“We need to really look at how do we extract data and be very transparent about the activity of our officers on the road,” Davis said.
Unlike some other cities, Memphis does not publicize traffic enforcement data. Decarcerate Memphis said it collected its data from five years of tickets obtained from the department through public records requests.
Five Black officers involved in Nichols’ arrest are due to be arraigned February 17 after they were fired January 20, then indicted on seven counts each, including second-degree murder, aggravated assault, aggravated kidnapping and official misconduct. A sixth officer, who is White, was fired and disciplined for violating policies in the Nichols case, while a seventh officer who has not been publicly identified is on administrative leave and under investigation.
The SCORPION unit was created to tackle rising crime in the city. It was disbanded amid national outcry following Nichols’ death, the department has said.
Defense attorneys in Memphis are going through their cases, trying to see whether any of their clients had run-ins with members of the unit, according to lawyer Mike Working. The hope is that whatever legal jeopardy their clients faced or faces will crumble, just as the credibility of the unit has.
City officials have not released any roster of the specialized unit so attorneys are searching charging documents for mentions of the team’s involvement.
“The tactics of the Scorpion unit were so brazen, and so many people have come forward that the entire unit is in question. And defense attorneys will ask for the chance to really review everything,” Working said.
Charges will not automatically be dismissed, but the presence of the unit now means that defense attorneys will be able to see discovery, like body cameras or dash cameras, as much as six months earlier than usual, he said. The ability to wade through evidence sooner could mean attorneys could find something to get their client’s case thrown out, he added.
“Scorpion, by its name, means there’s probably something there for the defense to investigate that must be disclosed,” Working said.
It’s unclear how many criminal cases currently involve Scorpion unit officers, but after Tyre Nichols, it will be that much more difficult for prosecutors to build and maintain a case through trial, Working said.
“They worked in teams, most officers on the team participated in an arrest,” he said. “So if all the people are going to be on a Scorpion team, I think it could be hard for the [district attorney] to piece that case back together once it’s been tainted by the Scorpion [unit].”
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