Fulton sheriff mulls renaming ‘Scorpion’ unit after Tyre Nichols killing

Credit: Ben Hendren

Credit: Ben Hendren

Fulton Sheriff Patrick Labat may rename his agency’s Scorpion Unit in light of “heinous actions” of the Memphis officers involved in Tyre Nichols’ beating death, he said Monday.

The five Memphis police officers, all of whom have since been fired and charged with murder, belonged to a unit with the same name. Memphis’ Scorpion Unit has since been disbanded.

Graphic video released last week shows the Memphis police officers repeatedly kicking, punching pepper-spraying and using their Tasers on the unarmed 29-year-old during a Jan. 7 traffic stop. The incident has prompted police reform activists across the country to question specialized law enforcement units — many of which are named after intimidating animals. Critics say such “elite” squads tend to attract more aggressive officers and typically function with far less oversight.

“After the nefarious and depraved actions that led to Tyre Nichols’ death, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office is one of many agencies considering a name change for our elite unit,” Labat said in an email, noting the Memphis officers’ actions “have cast dishonor and suspicion” on the name Scorpion.

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“Let me be clear, we aren’t considering a name change as a knee jerk reaction,” Labat continued. “Any changes made will come after thoughtful consideration by executive leadership along with SCORPION Unit team members with the goal of strengthening our commitment to our mission and serving the citizens of Fulton County with integrity, compassion and honor.”

In the meantime, the sheriff said, it would be wise for any police units using the name Scorpion to try building stronger bonds with their communities.

Fulton County’s 14-member crime-suppression unit was formed in 2021, months after Labat took office. At the time, a spokeswoman said the “seasoned veterans” assigned to the Scorpion Unit would be tasked with getting violent criminals off the streets of Fulton County.

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According to the agency, the Scorpion Unit focuses on reducing gang activity by targeting areas of the county prone to gun and drug-related crimes.

“As part of its mission, the FCSO Scorpion Unit is also tasked with identifying crime patterns, repeat offenders and deploying all legal resources available to arrest criminal perpetrators,” the sheriff’s office said Tuesday.

The unit frequently partners with surrounding agencies and the Georgia State Patrol in conducting traffic checkpoints throughout the county, according to news releases posted to Facebook and sent to the media.

In a single weekend in July of 2021, for instance, the Scorpion Unit boasted making 12 arrests, impounding four vehicles, issuing 103 traffic citations and recovering a stolen gun.

Most metro Atlanta law enforcement agencies say they don’t have elite units within their departments. And if they do, they aren’t named Scorpion.

Earlier this month, the Clayton County Sheriff’s Office announced the return of its COBRA crime-fighting unit.

In a message on the agency’s Nixle account, social media manager Carl Johnson said that interim Sheriff Levon Allen was reestablishing COBRA to combat the homicide rate, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution previously reported.

“After reviewing the violent crime stats, Sheriff Levon Allen, a former commander of the elite fugitive squad, acknowledged the immediate need for specialized crime-fighting units,” the Nixle post said. “Sheriff Allen has now reinstated the elite COBRA Unit that gained legendary status for ‘striking’ down crime.”

In February 2011, then-Atlanta police Chief George Turner and Mayor Kasim Reed announced that the Red Dog unit, known for its fatigues and in-your-face tactics, was being disbanded. Turner denied that he was taking down the 29-member team as a response to allegations the unit used excessive force.

The city agreed to pay more than $1 million to settle a lawsuit in December 2010 brought by patrons of the Atlanta Eagle bar, who claimed that Red Dog officers violated their civil rights in a 2009 raid on the bar.

— AJC staff writer Alexis Stevens contributed to this article.