What I’m Reading: Radley Balko, Tyre Nichols’s Death Proves Yet Again That
Elite Police Units Are a Disaster
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 similarelitepolice 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.
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. 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. 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. 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. A decade earlier, Chicago created the Special Operations Section, or S.O.S., in response to rising crime in that city. By the mid-2000s, whistle-blowers and official investigations accused S.O.S. officers of armed robbery, drug dealing, planting evidence, burglary, “taxing” drug dealers and kidnapping. 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.
— Radley Balko, Tyre Nichols’s Death Proves Yet Again ThatElitePolice Units Are a Disaster
New York Times Opinion, January 29, 2023