Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis, in a 15-minute telephone conversation with The New Tri-State Defender on Friday afternoon, did not indicate a willingness to dissolve the special unit that housed the officers now charged with beating Tyre D. Nichols to death.
Given the high profile of Nichols’ death and the public clamor – and demand in some instances – to hear more from Davis, this account shares elements of the conversation.
Regarding calls to disband the SCORPION unit:
“Specialized law enforcement units are a vital part of effective policing. I formed the SCORPION Unit. SCORPION is an acronym for: “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.” I was troubled by the fact that in certain communities, people could not sleep at night because there was so much shooting, all times of the day and night.
“For the most part, it really is a great concept, just as the Auto Theft Task Force and the Gang Unit have been exceptionally effective. The SCORPION Unit is the same concept. It is comprised of a specialized group of four roving teams that target high-crime neighborhoods using data that we collect.
“Results for the SCORPION Unit have been huge. These teams have taken more than 800 guns off the street – illegal guns. And, they have arrested more than 2,000 violent felons who have been wreaking havoc in our communities.
“The entire SCORPION program is being villainized because of what has happened. These guys did a very bad thing. It was wrong, it was not good policing, and it certainly set us back in terms of fostering goodwill with the Memphis community.
“The death of Tyre Nichols hurt me deeply, and the truth is, the former officers now facing charges were responsible. I dealt with it decisively and met a devastating challenge head-on. I immediately said that administrative action would be forthcoming. They were very bad actors in a program that is actually working.
“Some have suggested that the whole SCORPION program should be scrapped. I understand the sentiment, but it’s like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Every rogue officer found to violate the policies, standards of conduct, and the training has been expelled, and we will continue to do so.
“Even prior to this senseless tragedy, we promptly addressed citizens’ complaints regarding an officer’s behavior, whether SCORPION, Auto Theft, Drug, Gang, or any other specialized units, as well as officers on regular duty.
“Every complaint, which has been brought to our attention, has been investigated and addressed. Other instances of practices or behavior unbecoming of a police officer, or officers, which have not been reported go unchecked, but only because no one has brought it to our attention.
“If one or two people with the drug unit are found to do wrong, we identify the problem and correct the behavior. We don’t say, ‘Let’s get rid of the whole gang unit.’ Believe me, SCORPION has been highly effective in reducing the instances of violent crime and swept some pretty dangerous people off our streets.
“The majority of those officers in our specialized unit go out on a daily basis and perform very fine police work. Eliminating SCORPION is a knee-jerk reaction to travesty. Although I understand some may feel that way, it is not the right solution.
“Instead, I have identified a neutral source with the FBI who is willing to come in to help with a comprehensive assessment. The idea of some community faction creating a narrative for what ought to happen in police operations is not how changes are made.
“That decision is, ultimately, mine. But, we welcome every opportunity to partner with those in our community – to hear their concerns, ideas, fears, hopes, and their thoughts on how to make Memphis the beautiful, safe city we all know it can be.”
Concerning race and how officers were dealt with:
“Those five officers have left a terrible stain on, not only our department, but on our city. Their actions have completely nullified our efforts to foster a closer relationship with our community. They killed the efforts of policemen trying to build a good relationship with those we serve.
“Race was not a factor in how I dealt with this very serious matter. Black, white, or multi-color – anyone bringing that level of disgrace on this department will get the same.”
Culture of non-intervention in excessive force
“I came up through the ranks of law enforcement. And to be sure, there is a culture of shielding wrongdoing, including the blatant use of excessive force. Memphis Police officers know we are serious about failure to render aid and duty to intervene. Those are policies that we will not compromise on. There is zero tolerance on those issues.
“For this reason, we are continuing to look at the action and non-action of all those on the scene of Mr. Nichols’ confrontation with officers. There will be discipline, firing, and prosecution as warranted. That is my sincere pledge as we begin again to build trust. We will persevere in that. I remain undeterred by a few bad officers.
“Memphis police are neighbors, relatives, church members, sorority and fraternity members – we are Memphis. Our families live in Memphis. The only way we are going to move forward is together.
“When I told Tyre’s mother that my condolences were not those of a police chief, but a mother of Black children, I truly meant that. Now that everyone has access to the video, it is understandable that our officers are suffering just as the community is.
“Police need the support of the community. And we will continue to work and get better. We will do everything to begin this new journey to trust.”
On being missing in action:
“I am the Chief of Police, and we are still in the midst of a great deal of upheaval. Everyone was informed that an important investigation was taking place, and my attention was on all the issues coming out of that.
“We were dealing with multiple agencies. When there was something I needed to share, I did so. Of course, I was aware of what the media was saying about my ‘absence.’ What I cannot do is to allow whatever narrative the media is pushing to dictate my actions.
“That is what I cannot do.”