The recorded beating death of Tyre Nichols by members of the Memphis Police Department SCORPION squad has outraged much of the nation. Even stalwart defenders of police, most notably the national police unions who often excuse excessive police violence, have condemned the now-former officers charged in his killing.
While those who want to abolish the police have said this incident shows police reforms don’t work, the damning body camera footage is a big reason these men aren’t still on the street. Of course, we want ways to prevent these tragedies, but catching and prosecuting bad cops is part of that prevention. At the same time, police defenders will insist these officers were beyond the pale and not representative of the majority of cops around the country. That is true, but that doesn’t come to terms with how department policy empowered these men to beat Nichols to death.
Special units breed misconduct
While these officers must take responsibility for their horrific actions, the Memphis Police Department provided incentives and made policy decisions that undoubtedly contributed to Nichols’ death. Specifically, whatever it is the now-disbanded SCORPION unit thought it was doing, it had little to do with protecting and serving Memphis residents.
As my friend and former colleague Radley Balko wrote in the New York Times, many police departments across the country have created such special units to tackle serious recurring problems—usually guns, gangs, drugs, or vice—but the units become problems themselves. These units are often at the heart of scandals involving corruption, violence, and civil rights violations that continue to drive a wedge between the police and the communities that need competent law enforcement the most.
Part of the reason for this disconnect, as Balko explains, is that these units are often effectively autonomous. They operate without much supervision and their perception as “elite” units can justify their dubious methods and tactics. Moreover, such special status can attract precisely the wrong type of officers into those units–the proverbial “loose cannons”–creating a recipe for disaster and usually in the most vulnerable neighborhoods.
Special units lead to more arrests, but not safer communities
But even if a department improves the quality of officers in and oversight of these units, the incentives for police officers remain misaligned with public safety and security.
As I testified before the D.C. City Council back in 2020, special squads like the Gun Recovery Unit (GRU) are quite adept at recovering guns and making arrests, but there’s little evidence they make the community any safer. Gun recoveries are not correlated with decreases in murder rates or shootings, so the GRU effectively is an arrest-creating unit. What’s more, a startling number of D.C. gun possession cases are dismissed, meaning that despite the high numbers of arrests, the cases are not resulting in convictions.
This disconnect is emblematic of special units: in fulfilling the mission of their unit, they forgo the broader mission to protect and serve. A gun squad will find guns. Drug squads will find drugs. This often makes local officials happy because the department can provide hard numbers to show they are “doing something,” but whether the community is actually safer because of these actions is assumed but rarely shown. Additionally, what the officers had to do–i.e., how many innocent people they stopped, questioned, and searched before finding actual perpetrators–is rarely explained and never highlighted.
Special units are often a poor use of resources
The SCORPION team was intended to decrease crime by using aggressive tactics in specific areas where crimes are known to occur. Evidence-based policing research has shown that crimes are often concentrated in very small geographical areas known as “hot spots.” But, as with much of the rigorous research and experiments in policing, the tactics employed by the SCORPION unit did not follow the best practices suggested in the research.
As I’ve written repeatedly, policing hot spots can reduce crime in those areas, but the police should be in uniform and in marked cars. This visible police presence acts as a deterrent to criminal acts. But the SCORPION units employed unmarked cars, which eliminated the visible deterrent and probably reduced their own effectiveness. In many cases, communities would be better served by more patrol officers in hot spots and fewer special squads just looking for trouble.
Special units undermine police-community relationships
There is more to crime control than just visible officers. Police need communities to trust them so witnesses cooperate when crimes happen. Relationship building is drilled into patrol officers in many major cities, including D.C. and apparently Memphis. As Balko noted, the Memphis P.D. homepage highlights “Reimagining Policing” and participation in major police reform efforts, but that department still created an atmosphere that led to Tyre Nichols’ death.
This contradiction corresponds to my experience with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department: patrol officers work hard to build relationships with the communities they work in every day. Because these are the people they have to see day in and day out, they do whatever they can to not antagonize people in their service area. But special units like the GRU are often antagonistic by design, with one federal judge calling their tactics “a rolling roadblock that sweeps citizens up at random and subjects them to undesired police interactions” of harassment and suspicionless searches. By letting such special units run rampant in pursuit of their “do something” numbers, police departments destroy the goodwill their patrol officers work hard to develop and maintain.
Limiting the scope, duration, and effects of special units
It’s not hard to imagine circumstances where police officers should be tasked to respond to issues that arise in a community: a sex and labor trafficking organization that exploits immigrants; car theft rings leading to a spate of carjackings; or some other relatively discrete problem that deserves dedicated police attention. If special squads are needed, they should be assumed to be temporary and their missions should be clearly defined with measurable goals in public safety, not monthly arrest numbers or recovered contraband. Likewise, permanent specially trained units like SWAT teams should only use dynamic entry and similar force when necessary, not use them in day-to-day policing just to keep them busy.
Dismantling counterproductive special units would provide personnel to bolster patrols where they are most needed, both as a visible deterrent to crime and to better respond to calls for service (i.e., 911). Such a move would improve public safety by putting resources where they are needed, not just where officers can make arrests.