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Do 'elite' police teams like Memphis's SCORPION unit do more harm than good?

Protesters block traffic as they rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, in Memphis, Tennessee on January 27, 2023.  (SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)
Protesters block traffic as they rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols, in Memphis, Tennessee on January 27, 2023. (SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

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The special SCORPION police unit that brutalized Tyre Nichols in Memphis has now been disbanded.

But similar units exist in many cities.

Lawmakers say they’re essential for crimefighting. Critics say their elite status and lack of accountability is a recipe for abuse.

“Over and over again, we’ve seen these units brought down by abuse and scandal and shootings, and yet these civic leaders don’t seem to have learned the lesson,” Radley Balko says.

Today, On Point: Specialized police units. Do they work?


Brenda Goss Andrews, president of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE). President of the Retired Detroit Police Members Association. She served more than 30 years on the Detroit police force. (@bga1710)

Radley Balko, journalist and author who writes about criminal justice. He writes the Substack newsletter The Watch. (@radleybalko)

Bryanna Fox, professor of criminology at the University of Southern Florida. She consults with police departments around the country and studied Tampa’s Violent Crimes Bureau. Co-editor of Justice Quarterly.

Also Featured

Seth Stoughton, professor of law at the University of South Carolina. Former patrolman on the Tallahassee police force.

Interview Highlights

Brenda, you are president of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Executives. I wonder how this latest incident is going over with your fellow Black law enforcement officers?

Brenda Goss Andrews: “We are all horrified. I’ve talked to several, and I do represent the national organization, Black Law Enforcement Executives. We have close to 4,000 members and chapters all over the country, comprising federal, state, local, county police officers. And you will not find, I doubt, any police officer that would say that this was acceptable.

“This is not good police work, and this does not represent the majority of police throughout this country. And the majority of police officers are good. They are trustworthy. This behavior is an anomaly. It’s unfortunate. We started to bring condolences to the Nichols and Wells family who will be burying their loved one today. And this just should not have happened. It should never happen.”

On Detroit’s STRESS unit, and specialized police units

Brenda Goss Andrews: “I want to go back a little bit. Specialized units, for lack of a better word, have been around for decades. There were specialized units when I first came out as a police officer, I think that there were even before that. Detroit, if I may, had what we call STRESS. Stop the robberies, enjoy safe streets. And that was probably formulated in the early seventies, maybe late sixties, into the early seventies to do just that. It was a rash of robberies. Community was in a rage with the police department. You know, do something, do something.

“So they had this this unit. And then after a while, they were accused of, you know, being citizens, you know, doing some unlawful things. Well, Coleman Young … the first African American mayor in Detroit, said that he needed to abolish STRESS. It was no longer doing what it was designed to do. And he also came on at a time when he wanted to diversify the police department with African Americans and females, being that Detroit was probably about 83 to 85% African American, however, the police department did not reflect that.

“So this is when STRESS came about. So he actually disbanded the STRESS unit. But that did not mean that other units came about. Which Detroit, every city or especially every major city and probably others have some type of units that target specific things. Police officers on patrol, they are responding to calls for service. That’s all they’re doing, just going to that call for service, taking care of that and then going back in service.

“They do not have the opportunity to just go into a community, target some things, whether it’s robberies, home invasions, it could be any number of things. And that’s how these specialized units come about, usually because of the outcry from the community or outcry from the business community a lot of times. And so, they choose officers to go in and supervisors to go in. Their mission is to investigate or to stop or do something about that. So I would say they are, you know, effective if they stay on point, stay on mission.”

How would you describe the core mission of these specialized police units?

Radley Balko: “I think that’s part of the problem, is that their mission, their mandate tends to be pretty vague. It tends to be crime suppression. And, you know, that can include any number of crimes. And they’re also, you know, as we saw with this unit, they’re given, you know, pretty extraordinary authority to, for example, conduct pretextual, traffic stops for the purpose of generating leads in more serious cases. You know, I’m not against police specialization. I think it’s good to have officers who are particularly trained to investigate and prevent certain types of crimes.

“But this kind of vague crime suppression units have a long and sordid history. … The STRESS units in Detroit were mentioned. I mean, those units did a lot to undermine trust between police and the community in Detroit. But we’ve seen similar scandals all over the country. You had the CRASH unit in Los Angeles that created the Rampart scandal in the early 2000s. You have the street crimes and plainclothes units in New York City that were responsible for the deaths of people like Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell. And Eric Garner, some of the more, you know, well-known police fatalities, fatalities in police custody in that city’s history.

“Chicago has had a really long and sordid history of these units, including units that were brought down because of officers who, you know, not just police abuse, not just corruption, but officers dealing drugs, officers planting evidence, planting guns on people they shot. In one case, one of the officers who was cooperating with federal investigators, the head of the unit, was called the SOS unit, took out a hit on that officer. And then most recently in Baltimore, we had the elite gun Crimes Unit. Which was brought down in a really just awful scandal. I believe seven or eight officers ended up going to prison for a wide range of criminal activity, including pretty much everything I just mentioned.

“I understand why police officials and particularly politicians, when there’s a rise in crime, they want to show that, you know, they get it, that they understand the public’s frustration. And creating these units is an intuitive way to do that.  We need to give police officers more leeway, we need to give them less supervision. We need to let them sort of do what they have to do to solve crime in our city.

“But in the end, you know, one of the fundamental things you need to do to effectively keep the community safe is the trust of the community. If people don’t trust the police, they don’t call them when something goes wrong. They don’t cooperate when the police ask questions during the investigation. And, you know, fundamentally, you know, an incident like Tyre Nichols just does incalculable damage to the trust.”

Related Reading

New York Times: “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 on the first page emphasizes that “trust” is the key to effective law enforcement.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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