‘Special’ Police Units Have A Very Mixed And Troubling History

It sounded like a good idea. A new, reform-minded police chief in a crime-ridden city, coupled with a specialized, neighborhood-focused police unit to target crime “hot spots.” It even had a cool acronym – the “SCORPION” unit, short for “Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods.”

As with many similar specialized law enforcement units formed over the years in major metropolitan areas, however, the seeds of failure, if not disaster, were present as soon as the Memphis Police Department Chief Cerelyn Davis launched the SCORPION unit in late 2021. 

For starters, the mission for the 40 officers manning the special unit was ill-defined – basically to go into self-identified “hot spots” and make arrests. The strategy presumably would bring “peace,” even if it meant stopping individuals for minor offenses, such as suspected “reckless driving.” In fact, the initial predicate for the Jan. 7 SCORPION stop of the now-deceased Tyre Nichols was precisely that. 

In stopping Nichols, the officers appeared to be following a directive from Chief Davis herself when she set out her crime-fighting strategy shortly after assuming the department’s reins in 2021. At the time, she reportedly emphasized explicitly that “reckless driving” was to be a police department priority. By green lighting the practice of initiating police stops in “hot spot” areas for nothing more that “suspected reckless driving,” she set in motion a series of events that easily could, and did, spiral out of control.

The now-disbanded SCORPION unit appears also to have suffered from a defect common to many specialized police units over the years – insufficient and poorly trained supervision. In fact, it appears the unit that stopped Nichols had no on-scene supervision whatsoever.

An even more fundamental problem appears to be that the Memphis unit had little if any specialized training. The speed with which the 40-man unit was formed and sent to roam the streets of “hot spot” neighborhoods, indicates its members were simply chosen from the department’s ranks and given free rein to bring “peace” by whatever means chosen.

Those methods are similar to specialized units’ tactics in other cities – such as the “Powershift” unit formed in 2017 in Washington, D.C. In these units, officers “jump out” of police cars and immediately confront individuals on the streets in “high-crime” areas to quickly determine if any illegal weapons are present. As with the Memphis department’s SCORPION unit, such tactics as employed by “Powershift” might have reduced certain indices of crime trumpeted by local political leaders (“weapons seized” or “arrests made,” for example), but they created a heightened sense of fear in the neighborhoods rather than a positive feeling of “peace.”

While the short-lived SCORPION unit’s legacy has not yet been reported to have included corruption among its members, such has not been the case in other units elsewhere. 

Last September, for example, seven District of Columbia police officer members of what has been described as “the specialized crime suppression unit in Southeast D.C.,” were removed from the unit following evidence they had seized illegally held guns from suspects, but had made no arrests incident to such seizures.

Misconduct by officers in specialized police units often creates a serious drain on a city’s resources, the result of losing lawsuits based on officers’ overly aggressive tactics. This was the case in 2011, when the City of Atlanta disbanded the well-publicized “Red Dog” unit, which had been created in the late 1980s to target drug gangs, but wound up costing the City significant sums of money paid out because of misconduct by its members. 

New York has suffered a similarly costly experience with lawsuits resulting from its “neighborhood safety teams” working as an “anti-gang unit.” They have been found guilty numerous times of violating citizens’ constitutional rights. Apparently not learning from experience, New York City Mayor Eric Adams last year revived that so-called “elite” unit as a response to rising crime rates. 

Rather than setting up “specialized” police units as a deceptively easy way to meet specific crime problems that inevitably confront cities, in the long run they would be far better served by focusing on and investing in improved and more comprehensive training, and then using their existing organization structure and personnel base to meet departmental and community needs; not quite as exciting as “SCORPION” or “Powershift” units with cool tee shirts, but far more effective and less costly. 

Bob Barr represented Georgia’s Seventh District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He served as the United States Attorney in Atlanta from 1986 to 1990 and was an official with the CIA in the 1970s. He now practices law in Atlanta, Georgia and serves as head of Liberty Guard. Original here.