Atlantans on Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis’ REDDOG Unit: ‘They’d Beat Your Ass’

When the video of Tyre Nichols’ brutal beating by Memphis police was released to the public a week ago, many—including Nichols’ family—applauded Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis’ swift action in firing the officers involved in his beating, calling it a blueprint for police accountability moving forward.

Davis had recently been seen as a figure willing to speak out for police reform, even to the Senate, following the murder of George Floyd and as a president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives.

But to some Atlantans, the beating of Nichols by members of Davis’ newly created (and now disbanded) SCORPION unit in Memphis reminded them of their own violent experience at the hands of another unit Davis commanded in the early 2000’s: the REDDOGs.

And others have questioned whether she had learned from past mistakes when she created the SCORPION unit in Memphis to crack down on violence.

“She took that same intent down… there and created a whole ‘nother different breed of REDDOG, man,” one man, who said he was beaten by members of the REDDOGs while Davis was in charge in 2007, told The Daily Beast.

Tyre Nichols was beaten by officers from the SCORPION unit, a specialized unit set up by Chief Cerelyn Davis

Tyre Nichols was beaten by officers from the SCORPION unit, a specialized unit set up by Chief Cerelyn Davis

REUTERS/Alyssa Pointer

The Memphis Police Department did not immediately respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment Friday. The Atlanta Police Department did not respond to questions about comparisons of REDDOG to the use of force in the Tyre Nichols Video. However, a spokesperson, Anthony Grant, noted that the unit was disbanded. “In the wake of the death of Tyre Nichols, there has been an understandable increase in attention on specialized law enforcement units,” he said in a statement.

‘They would knock people out, they would break jaws’

Memphis’ Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION) unit was created by Davis in 2021 to tackle neighborhoods with high levels of violence. But after a brutal video showed how SCORPION cops ruthlessly beat Nichols during a questionable traffic stop, Davis promptly shut down the unit.

The REDDOG unit—which stood for Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia—is now also defunct. It was created long before Davis’ tenure as commander, coming to life in 1987, prior to the city holding the National Democratic Convention and the Olympics, and while politicians were under pressure to knock down violent crime during the incarceration blitz of the 1990s.

“The real reason it received the name REDDOGs was because the whole idea was based on a linebacker blitz package for the Georgia Bulldogs,” explained Georgia State University Professor Maurice J. Hobson during an online talk on the unit in 2020. The play, he said, was designed to knock down and “discombobulate” opponents “to the point where they’ll make mistakes.”

“This is how the REDDOGs went. They would go in, they would knock people out, they would break jaws,” he said.

Derrick McCord’s neighborhood, Summerhill, was host to Braves games played in the old Olympic stadium and he said the unit would often lead crackdowns in the area in the early 2000s.

Many officers he met through his time in the Police Athletic League were different, he said, “But them? If you was looking at a Western movie like a REDDOG would kind of be like a lynch mob.”

McCord, who is Black, was jumped by the REDDOGs in 2007 among other run-ins, he told The Daily Beast.

“Regular police don’t act like that,” he said.

Kathryn Johnston’s death

According to Davis’ resume—made available online when she applied to be chief of the Durham Police Department—she had commanded what was called the Special Enforcement section of the Atlanta Police Department between the summer of 2006 and fall 2007. The command included overseeing various units, including the infamous REDDOGs.

During her time there, she was named in a lawsuit as the “managerial authority” over officers who shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston in The Bluff neighborhood during a botched raid, and then covered it up by planting drugs. A civil suit settled for $4.9 million—meaning Davis was never found legally liable—and three officers were sentenced to prison in criminal court.

At the time, lawyers for Johnston’s family had argued that Davis’ leadership and pressure to produce arrests directly drove officers towards their misdeeds.

One lawyer in Johnston’s case, Shean Williams, told The Daily Beast on Friday that, in his view, comparisons between Davis’ time in Atlanta and what he saw in the Nichols’ video were warranted.

“I like to say this a lot: People just don’t fall, you usually been tripping for a while before you actually fall. What we saw was evidence of something that has been allowed to fester in that police department, and a culture and an environment,” he told The Daily Beast.

“Kathryn Johnston was not the only incident, if you look at her history,” he added.

After Davis left her post overseeing specialized units, she continued her rise in the department, doing a stint in internal affairs, where she would again meet with problems when she was fired, then reinstated, after being accused of stepping in to stop a sex crimes investigation into the husband of another Atlanta policewoman.

Williams questioned how Davis was allowed to be hired in the first place. “That’s the type of mentality that you’re seeing running Memphis. So I think there are similarities,” he said.

Violent run-ins

McCord told The Daily Beast that he didn’t feel his experience with the “over-aggressive” unit changed much under Davis’ presence, or after she was gone.

While McCord said that he personally didn’t experience anything like what he saw in the Tyre Nichols video, he both saw and heard of violent episodes happening to others—hands slammed in doors, men beaten, officers joking about letting men run so they could be shot.

McCord told The Daily Beast that many times it was hard to know whether or not to run because it was hard to tell who was jumping out of the unmarked vehicles, particularly at night.

Another Black Atlantan described his run-in with the REDDOGs in 2007 as typical of the unit as well. When cops jumped out of their unmarked cars, he ran. He was caught, his marijuana seized, and he explained that was slapped in the face twice by an officer.

“Slapped me dead in my face like ‘What you got on you’?” he recalled to The Daily Beast this week. “I ain’t got nothing on me,” the man, who requested his name be withheld, said he replied. “He slapped my ass again.”

His experience was also documented in a local news story at the time.

He alleged that when he was younger, REDDOG officers would often catch him and beat him up—but not arrest him, as they “don’t want tot do the paperwork” required for juvenile arrests.

“They’d beat your ass and let you go,” he told The Daily Beast.

In 2011, the REDDOGS, like the SCORPION unit, was finally disbanded after repeated scandals and rising calls to end its abuses of power.

“We have a disproportionate number of complaints about officers who belong to the Red Dog unit as opposed to officers involved in the zones,” Cristina Beamud, executive director of the Atlanta Citizen Review Board—a police watchdog group—told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time.

For McCord, the question to be asked now is simple: “If you come to stop the violence, how can you start to introduce more violence?”

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