Tyre Nichols’s Death Proves Yet Again That ‘Elite’ Police Units Are a Disaster
The website of the Memphis Police Department includes an entire section called “Reimagine Policing.” The introduction emphasizes that trust is the key to effective law enforcement, and touts the department’s participation in reform efforts such as President Barack Obama’s 21st Century Policing program, de-escalation training and the “8 Can’t Wait” reforms proposed by the group Campaign Zero.
Yet in 2021, as homicides in the city soared, the city announced the formation of the Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, or SCORPION. The teams, which included four groups of 10 officers each, would saturate crime “hot spots” in the city in unmarked cars and make pretextual traffic stops to investigate homicides, aggravated assaults, robberies and carjackings.
The SCORPION program has all the markings of similar “elite” police teams around the country, assembled for the broad purpose of fighting crime, which operate with far more leeway and less oversight than do regular police officers. Some of these units have touted impressive records of arrests and gun confiscations, though those statistics don’t always correlate with a decrease in crime. But they all rest on the idea that to be effective, police officers need less oversight. That is a fundamental misconception. In city after city, these units have proven that putting officers in street clothes and unmarked cars, then giving them less supervision, an open mandate and an intimidating name shatters the community trust that police forces require to keep people safe.
We now know that it was members of the SCORPION unit that were accused of beating and killing Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop earlier this month. In agonizing videos of the incident released by the city on Friday, at least five officers swarm Nichols, screaming at him and issuing contradictory instructions. Nichols understandably flees. When the officers catch up, they take turns beating him over several minutes, while he appears to show no resistance. They demonstrate a chilling disregard for Nichols’s humanity, at times casually pausing to tie their shoes or catch their breath, then resuming the brutal assault.
The city of Memphis disbanded the SCORPION program over the weekend, and five officers have been charged with murder. But Memphis isn’t alone. Despite a sordid and scandal-plagued history, city leaders around the country continue to turn to similar elite police units as a get-tough response to rising crime.
As the Memphis P.D. website points out, policing is more effective when there’s mutual trust and respect between police officers and the communities they serve. The police can’t investigate crime unless people in the community are willing to talk to them or to flag problems in the first place. That’s one reason there’s such a strong correlation between cities with persistently high rates of violent crime — cities like Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and New Orleans — and cities with persistent, well-documented histories of police abuse. These cities also tend to have low rates for solving crimes and closing cases, further undermining the relationship between the police and residents.
Programs like SCORPION are a big part of the problem.
These units are typically touted as the best of the best — teams of highly experienced, carefully selected officers with stable temperaments, who have earned the right to work with less supervision. It isn’t difficult to see the dangers of telling police officers again and again that they are “elite,” but what’s really remarkable is how far that ideal is from the reality. As Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles deputy police chief and former SWAT officer once told me, “The guys who really want to be on the SWAT team are the last people you should be putting on the SWAT team.” These units tend to attract aggressive, rules-skirting officers who then bring in like-minded colleagues to join them.
One former Memphis officer told CBS News that SCORPION hired young and inexperienced officers with a propensity for aggression. Their “training” consisted of “three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of criminal apprehension instruction and one day at the firing range.” One of the five officers indicted in Nichols’ murder had a prior complaint against him, and the civil rights attorney Ben Crump said he has already heard from other people who say they were abused by the unit.
The name of the team gives the game away. You call a unit SCORPION or “Strike Force” because you want to instill fear, and because you want to attract police officers who enjoy being feared.
Memphis is hardly alone. In the early 1970s, Detroit officials responded to a surge in street violence with a program called Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets, or STRESS. Early on, the units — which often, like SCORPION, included Black officers — gave politicians bragging rights to a record of arrests and gun confiscations. But behind that record were rogue cops with a cowboy mentality. They were accused of planting evidence, physical abuse and corruption. Over a two-year period, the units killed at least 22 people, almost all of them Black. The city eventually ended the program after a STRESS unit raided an apartment where five Wayne County sheriff’s deputies — all Black — were playing poker. The resulting shootout left one deputy dead and another permanently disabled.
In the 50 years since, a similar story has played out in cities across the country, with remarkable consistency. Perhaps the most infamous was the Los Angeles Police Department’s Rampart scandal of the late 1990s, which involved a unit called Community Resources against Street Hoodlums program, or CRASH. More than 70 officers were implicated in planting guns and drug evidence, selling narcotics themselves and shooting and beating people without provocation.
Around the same time, the results of an investigation into Los Angeles’s Special Investigations Section — which had killed so many people it earned the nickname “Death Squad” — caused the city to pay out about $125 million in settlements to victims and court costs.
A decade earlier, Chicago created the Special Operations Section, or SOS, in response to rising crime in that city. By the mid-2000s, whistle-blowers and official investigations accused SOS officers of armed robbery, drug dealing, planting evidence, burglary, “taxing” drug dealers and kidnapping. One member, Keith Herrera, told “60 Minutes” that SOS officers pulled over motorists without cause, confiscated their keys, then broke into their homes and stole from them. The head of the unit — only one of numerous scandal-plagued elite units in the city’s history — eventually pleaded guilty to hiring a hit man to kill Officer Herrera.
And it was officers from the N.Y.P.D.’s Street Crimes Unit — their motto: “We own the night” — who shot and killed the unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo after mistaking his wallet for a gun. Though the unit was officially disbanded, later incarnations would take the lead in the city’s notorious Stop-and-Frisk policy, and would be implicated in some of the city’s most notorious police killings, including the deaths of Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Kimani Gray. A 2018 investigation by The Intercept found that though these units comprise just 6 percent of N.Y.P.D. officers, they were involved in more than 30 percent of fatal shootings by police officers. The street crimes units were again disbanded following the George Floyd protests in 2020. But last year, in response to a sharp rise in crime, Eric Adams restarted them.
Scandals involving elite police units have also hit Indianapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Newark, Pomona, Milwaukee, Greensboro and Fresno, among others. Most recently, eight officers from a unit in Baltimore were convicted and imprisoned after allegations that they robbed city residents, stole from local businesses, sold drugs, and carried BB guns to plant on people.
The evidence is overwhelming: Giving roving teams of police officers added authority, elite status, a long leash and a vague mandate is a formula for abuse.
From STRESS to SCORPION, police and city officials have often claimed that these units helped reduce the crime rate. It’s hard to say if they’re right. Crime data is notoriously unreliable, and it’s all but impossible to isolate a rise or fall in crime in a specific city to a single variable. Violent crime did drop in Memphis last year, but it also dropped in most large cities, after a two-year spike.
But even if true, the implication ought to give us pause. It suggests that residents of the neighborhoods these units patrol must choose between living in fear of crime or living in fear of the police.
Radley Balko is author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” and of the criminal justice newsletter The Watch.
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