A former veteran police officer from the city of Memphis who knew those involved in the Tyre Nichols’ violent arrest spoke to CBS News about one of those five ex-officers charged in the case, and the so-called SCORPION unit the five were members of.
He described the “proactive” approach of the ex-officer as someone who believed if you weren’t aggressively going after the bad guys, you weren’t doing your job as a police officer.
“I never thought this would happen,” the former officer told CBS News. The former officer, who recently left the department after 10 years, spoke only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
He said he knew each of the charged ex-officers and worked closely at times with one of them, Demetrius Haley. The five were fired from their jobs and face second-degree murder charges for the brutal beating of Nichols following a Jan. 7 traffic stop.
Morale is very low at the Memphis Police Department right now, according to the former officer.
“This is not an indication of who the department is,” he said. “We are dealing with very bad people. There are fights and foot chases, but we all understand when it is time to stop.”
Tire Nichols was arrested after Haley and the four other officers – Tadarrius Bean, Emmitt Martin III, Desmond Mills Jr. and Justin Smith – pulled him over for reckless driving. Video from the scene, released by the city on Friday, shows Nichols was severely beaten. He died three days later in hospital.
Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch said he was “sickened” and “shocked” by the video footage he saw of the beating. “Let me be clear: what happened here does not at all reflect proper policing. This was wrong. This was criminal.”
Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy joined Rausch at the press conference on Thursday announce the charges against the five fired officers.
“We want justice for Tire Nichols,” Mulroy said. “…The world is watching us and we must show the world what lessons we can learn from this tragedy.”
In the CBS News interview, the former Memphis police officer described the 30-year-old Haley as “a young, athletic, confident guy.”
But he said Haley hit out at others in the department because, in Haley’s view, they weren’t aggressive enough to pursue criminals.
CBS News is trying to reach a representative of Haley’s for comment.
Haley, a former Shelby County Corrections Officer, was a member of the hand-picked SCORPION team, a specialized unit formed in 2021 to combat violent street crime.
The name SCORPION stands for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods. There are more than two dozen officers assigned to SCORPION teams. They wear black hoodies and black tactical vests with “POLICE” emblazoned on the front and back, and drive dark-colored Dodge Chargers emblazoned with a SCORPION seal.
The crime-fighting teams patrol in groups and sometimes use warranted, low-level traffic stops as a way to find violent criminals, drugs or weapons.
“You mostly have to be a go-getter,” to join the SCORPION unit, the former officer told CBS News. “You have to be someone who wants to make a difference, who wants to catch the bad guy.”
Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis told CNN that investigators “have not been able to substantiate” the initial report of reckless driving that led to Nichols’ arrest. And Nichols’ family attorney Antonio Romanucci questioned the rationale for the stop, saying on CNN, “we know that the saturation and suppression units use pretexts to stop to carry out this … wolf pack mentality of policing.”
The former Memphis officer who spoke to CBS News said that with a large number of officers retiring from the department, younger, less experienced members of the department were tapped for the specialized SCORPION teams. They were not well trained and not properly managed, he said, describing the training as consisting of three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of crime instruction and one day at the shooting range.
The Memphis Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The officers charged in Nichols’ death were employed from 2017 to 2020. They were 24 to 32 years old.
“You have to have crime-fighting units,” the former officer said. “You can’t bring crime down by just showing up at schools and talking to the kids and putting up posters.”
He emphasized that the department is made up of truly dedicated officers committed to their mission, committed to helping people.
“They still have to go out every day and get to work. They still have to fight crime.”