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Opinion Cities should get rid of their toxic crime-suppression units

In an image taken from video, police officers in Memphis are seen at the scene of the beating suffered by Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, this month. (City of Memphis/AP)
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Last week, after five Memphis police officers were charged with murdering their son, Tyre Nichols’s family called for the dissolution of Scorpion, the specialized policing unit to which those officers were assigned. On Saturday, Memphis made the right decision and announced it would shut the unit down.

Now, other cities should follow Memphis’s lead and disband their own analogous — and outdated — units.

In my decades investigating law enforcement agencies, and studying what makes them prone to causing unnecessary harm, I have consistently found that units such as Scorpion are a key factor. And they are not unusual. Most mid-size to large cities have a unit — or several — akin to Scorpion, focused on areas considered to be crime “hot spots” or on a particular task such as seizing drugs or guns.

These teams have various names orbiting around buzzwords like “crime suppression” or “violence reduction.” In the communities they police, they’re often just called “jump outs.” Regardless of the name, they are all under official direction — pressure, even — to aggressively police areas deemed high-crime, nearly always majority Black or Latino, often using traffic and pedestrian stops as an excuse to search people and their belongings in the hopes of finding guns or other contraband.

It’s possible that Scorpion was a particularly bad specimen of this family of aggressive policing units: As one police chief noted, the name “speaks volumes about the mission of the unit and the mentality of the officers.” That “Scorpion” was an acronym for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods” is a mockery of genuine concern for community well-being.

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But this tolerance for inflicting community pain in the name of community protection is a thread that runs through these teams going back decades. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department’s “special investigations section” was an “elite” unit known both for the extraordinary number of people it killed in shootouts and for its practice of allowing community members to be victimized so it could make better arrests. During a Justice Department investigation of the New Orleans Police Department in 2010, a police official told investigators that the community viewed street crime “task forces” as “jump out boys, dirty cops, the ones who are going to be brutal.” These task forces finally were ended in 2020 after the federal monitor showed they operated with little supervision, made stops with “questionable legal basis,” didn’t document their work and endangered citizens.

An investigation of the Baltimore Police Department’s notoriously corrupt and violent Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) found that although created in 2007, its abusive tactics had roots dating back to at least 1999. Yet the GTTF was not disbanded until eight of its officers were indicted in 2017.

In Washington, the D.C. Police Reform Commission (which I co-chaired) recommended in 2021 that the Metropolitan Police Department suspend its crime-suppression teams and gun recovery unit until it could provide data showing its effectiveness. The department has not done so, although late last year, it suspended one crime-suppression team after seven of its officers were put under investigation. A month ago, a former officer from another team was convicted of second-degree murder for a 2020 car chase that killed Karon Hylton-Brown (another unit officer was found guilty of obstructing justice).

These units can’t be fixed. Their problems go beyond issues with selection, training or supervision. The premise on which they are based ensures they will fail communities. Everything we know teaches us that, to be effective, policing must center community well-being and fair treatment. But these units are focused on stats: arrests made, guns and drugs recovered, even overtime hours worked. This incentivizes policing that takes full advantage (and then some) of the broad discretion under law — including pretext stops and discretion to jail that is broader than a judge’s — to detain and search people based on little more than a hunch, a profile or where they live. It’s an approach that has been shown time and again to be inefficient, alienating and confrontation-provoking, even as its impact on crime is uncertain.

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I have talked with many police officers who are ambivalent about — or even resentful of — these units, which generally do not respond to calls for service. This leaves regular patrol officers to pick up the slack — and often, the pieces of community relationship broken by interactions with the specialized units. These patrol officers live the mixed messages given by police and city leadership: They are sternly admonished to build trust and take action only where public safety requires, even as they see leadership encouraging (and promoting) members of crime-suppression teams. They watch as the relationships they built with community members go unnoticed and the latest gun and drug bust earns a commendation. Heavily policed communities will tell you exactly how this contradiction plays out: “The police are everywhere,” I often have been told, “until you need them.”

Suppression units also become petri dishes for cultures of impunity. As long as they “produce,” making arrests and bringing in contraband, chiefs can ward off unrealistic expectations that policing solve social problems. But facilitating this kind of “production” has always, in my experience, gone hand-in-hand with indulging lax adherence to law and policy, discounting or glossing over misconduct complaints and generous overtime approval.

These units reflect and reinforce the worst aspects of warrior policing. The cost-benefit analysis makes no sense once you recognize that we have underestimated their harms, and the benefits they offer could be better achieved through services that respond more directly to community needs and work to reduce the root causes of crime.

Disbanding Scorpion was likely a little too little, and certainly a little too late. Other communities should not wait for an act of searing violence before rethinking this approach. It’s time to recognize the harm these units cause — and put an end to them and the approach to policing they embody.