The Memphis police chief disbanded the city’s so-called Scorpion unit on Saturday, citing a “cloud of dishonour” from newly released video that showed some of its officers beating Tyre Nichols to death after stopping the black driver.
Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis acted a day after the harrowing video emerged, saying she listened to Nichols’ relatives, community leaders and uninvolved officers in making the decision.
Her announcement came as the US and the city struggled to come to grips with the violence of the officers, who are also black.
The video renewed doubts about why fatal encounters with law enforcement keep happening despite repeated calls for change.
Protestors marching though downtown Memphis cheered when they heard the unit had been dissolved. One protestor said over a bullhorn that “the unit that killed Tyre has been permanently disbanded”.
Referring to “the heinous actions of a few” that dishonoured the unit, Ms Davis contradicted an earlier statement that she would keep the unit. She said it was imperative that the department “take proactive steps in the healing process”.
“It is in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate the Scorpion unit,” she said in a statement. She said the officers currently assigned to it agreed “unreservedly”.
The unit is composed of three teams of about 30 officers whose stated aim is to target violent offenders in areas beset by high crime. It had been inactive since Mr Nichols’ January 7 arrest.
Scorpion stands for Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace In Our Neighbourhoods.
In an interview on Friday with The Associated Press, Ms Davis had said she would not shut down a unit if a few officers commit “some egregious act” and because she needed it to continue to work.
“The whole idea that the Scorpion unit is a bad unit, I just have a problem with that,” Ms Davis said then.
Ms Davis became the first black female chief in Memphis one year after George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police. At the time, she was chief in Durham, North Carolina, and had called for sweeping police reform.
Ben Crump and Antonio Romanucci, lawyers for the Nichols family, said the move was “a decent and just decision”.
“We must keep in mind that this is just the next step on this journey for justice and accountability, as clearly this misconduct is not restricted to these specialty units. It extends so much further,” they said.
The five disgraced officers — Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills Jr, Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith — have been fired and charged with murder and other crimes in Mr Nichols’ death, which came three days after the arrest. They face up to 60 years in prison if convicted of second-degree murder.
The video images released on Friday showed police savagely beating the 29-year-old FedEx worker for three minutes while screaming profanities at him in an assault that the Nichols family legal team has likened to the infamous 1991 police beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King.
Mr Nichols calls out for his mother before his limp body is propped against a squad car and the officers exchange fist-bumps.
The video also left many unanswered questions about the traffic stop and about other law enforcement officers who stood by as Mr Nichols lay motionless on the pavement.
“Nobody tried to stop anything. They have a duty to intervene, a duty to render care,” Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Organisation of Black Law Enforcement Executives, said in an interview after viewing the video.
She also was struck by the immediate aggression from officers as soon as they got out of the car: “It just went to 100… This was never a matter of de-escalation,” Goss Andrews said, adding, “The young man never had a chance from the moment that he was stopped.”
Ms Davis has said other officers are under investigation, and Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner said two deputies were relieved of duty without pay while their conduct is investigated.
Rodney Wells, Mr Nichols’ stepfather, said the family would “continue to seek justice” and those who failed to render aid are “just as culpable as the officers who threw the blows”.
A Memphis police spokeswoman declined to comment on the other officers’ conduct.
Cities nationwide had braced for demonstrations after the video emerged, but protests were scattered and nonviolent.
Several dozen demonstrators in Memphis blocked the Interstate 55 bridge that carries traffic over the Mississippi River toward Arkansas. Protesters also blocked traffic in New York City, Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon.
It is not clear why the traffic stop happened in the first place. One officer can be heard on video saying that Mr Nichols would not stop and then swerved as though he intended to hit the officer’s car. The officer says that when Mr Nichols pulled up to a red light, the officers jumped out.
But Ms Davis said the department cannot substantiate the reason for the stop.
“We don’t know what happened,” she said, adding, “All we know is the amount of force that was applied in this situation was over the top.”
After the first officer roughly pulled Mr Nichols out of the car, Mr Nichols can be heard saying, “I didn’t do anything”, as a group of officers begin to wrestle him to the ground.
One is heard yelling, “Tase him! Tase him!”.
Mr Nichols calmly says, “OK, I’m on the ground,” and that he was just trying to go home. Moments later, he yells at them to “stop”.
Mr Nichols is then seen running as an officer fires a Taser. The officers start chasing Mr Nichols.
Others are called, and a search ensues before Mr Nichols is caught at another intersection. His mother’s home, where he lived, was only a few houses away, and his family said he was trying to get there.
The officers beat him with a baton, and kick and punch him. The attack continues even after he collapses.
It takes more than 20 minutes afterward before any sort of medical attention is provided.
During the wait for an ambulance, officers joke and air grievances. They complain that a handheld radio was ruined, that someone lost a flashlight, that multiple officers were caught in the pepper spray used against Mr Nichols.
Throughout the videos, they make claims about Mr Nichols’ behaviour that are not supported by the footage or that the district attorney and other officials say did not happen.
In one, an officer claims that during the initial traffic stop Mr Nichols reached for the officer’s gun and almost had his hand on the handle, something not shown in the video.
After Mr Nichols is in handcuffs and leaning against a police car, several officers say he must have been high. Later one says no drugs were found in Nichols’ car, and another immediately counters that he must have ditched something while running away.