After five members of the Memphis Police Department’s SCORPION squad were charged with murder for beating Tyre Nichols after stopping him for an apparent traffic infraction, the department moved swiftly to disband the team. However, such teams are still widely present in other major American cities.
These supposedly elite units have been embroiled in scandals involving the harassment, abuse, and even unnecessary deaths of residents in cities across the country, from New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles. But even in places where they were once banned, they are making a comeback.
In 1999, an unarmed Black student named Amadou Diallo was slain by officers from the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit, which had been established in the city’s chaotic 1970s with the motto “We Own the Night.” When he reached for what they claimed to be a gun but was actually his wallet, they opened fire, hitting him 19 times.
The cops involved were exonerated, but the unit was abolished in 2002 after racial profiling was discovered in a federal probe.
“We want people to be treated fairly,” she told CNN on Monday. “For this incident to happen, on top of all these cases that have happened, saddens me and my heart is broken.”
On Monday, she told CNN that fair treatment of all individuals is a top priority. It breaks my heart that this happened on top of everything else that has transpired.
Hundreds of plainclothes police officers in New York were transferred to another anti-crime unit two decades after Diallo’s death. That was one of the last chapters of the controversial stop-and-frisk strategy that disproportionately affected Black and Latinx people in Minneapolis, according to then-Commissioner Dermot Shea, who took office after widespread protests in 2020 following the assassination of George Floyd.
The city of Chicago had a modified plainclothes anti-gun team disbanded not long before Mayor Eric Adams took office last year, but he quickly reinstated it.
During an appearance on CNN This Morning on Monday, he stated, “Units don’t generate abuse.” He did not, however, promise not to second-guess the decisions taken in Memphis. Abusive actions breed more abusive ones.
Adams, who was once beaten by police and went on to have a distinguished career with the New York Police Department, defended his choice to reinstate an elite team.
He emphasised the importance of employing all available resources to ensure the safety of the public.
One of Cerelyn “CJ” Davis’s first important moves as police chief of Memphis in 2021 was to establish the SCORPION unit. She told CNN that the squad, Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, was formed because of a “outcry from the community” in response to a surge in homicides that year.
As commander of special operations for the Atlanta Police Department, Davis oversaw elite police groups like the RED DOG unit, thus he was no stranger to such organizations. After years of complaints and a federal lawsuit filed by LGBT bar patrons following a forceful raid, RED DOG was itself shut down in 2011.
Both the SCORPION in Memphis and the RED DOG unit in Atlanta gained political support. RED DOG is an abbreviation for “Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia.”
A matter of weeks after its inception, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland announced, “The SCORPION unit has had a total of 566 arrests – 390 of them criminal arrests.” Over 103 thousand dollars in cash, 270 vehicles, and 253 weapons have been confiscated.
According to former Boston police commissioner Ed Davis, the figures should have served as a warning.
“If you put a unit like this out on the street in this environment and you look at a number where they’re pulling in 170 or 180 people into custody every month after the unit gets started, you’ve got to take a closer look at what they’re doing – what those charges are, what the probable cause is, what the reason for the stops is,” he told Kasie Hunt on Monday.
“These units can get out of control really quickly. If you’re not paying close attention on the supervisory part then you’ve got a problem,” he said. “You need to be constantly monitoring what these special squads are doing out there to make sure this type of aberrant behavior doesn’t occur.”
In addition, he pondered the naming of these units with such combative connotations.
“The other side of it is the culture,” he told Hunt. “If you’re calling it the SCORPION unit, what message are you sending to the officers who are in it and to the community… Scorpions sting.”
Former Boston police chief Ed Davis (2006-2013) suggested that community engagement will be key for any special unit to succeed.
“One of my first meetings I went to as a new police commissioner in Boston, I went to Mission Hill and listened to a group of 200-300 young black men who told me our units were jumping out of the cars and tipping guys upside down to see if a gun would come out. I went back and met with the gang unit after that, and I made it very clear that this was not the mission that I wanted accomplished. … You can’t make everybody who’s between the age of 15 and 25 a suspect.”
As a result of a lack of officers and sluggish recruitment, several cities are reducing the size of their specialized police units, which means that fewer officers can devote time to patrolling the streets and handling other routine matters.
Some people are rethinking them. A Titan Unit focused on violent crime was established in Atlanta in the late summer of 2021, and a second squad, targeting repeat offenders, was revealed in March of 2022, well before Adams announced his ambitions to revive an anti-crime unit.