Three of the four police officers charged with the murder of an unarmed African immigrant, Richard Murphy, (L) Kenneth Boss, (C) and Edward McMellon, meet with reporters after their arraignment in New York on March 31. All pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder at State Supreme Court in the Bronx where tight security virtually shut down the building during their arraignment. PM/WS / © Reuters

Why Scorpion and Similar Special Policing Units Are Dangerous, and Entrenched

Christy Lopez

February 09, 2023

After Memphis, departments need to wake up to the profound risks these divisions present

After Memphis, departments need to wake up to the profound risks these divisions present

Since the release of video footage showing Tyre Nichols’ killing at the hands of at least five police officers assigned to Memphis Police Department’s “Scorpion” unit, I and others have urged that similar units across the country be disbanded. This is unlikely to happen on a large scale anytime soon — despite the dearth of evidence showing that any benefits of these units outweigh their substantial costs. Understanding why is important, because it brings home a few sobering facts about why sustained, transformative change in policing is so elusive in the United States.

The current iteration of aggressive crime suppression teams like Scorpion has been in place, not coincidentally, for about as long as the war on drugs. These units are rarely named as aptly as Memphis’ squad, but they share common features and a common ethos: community pain in the name of community protection.

Usually using unmarked cars, they blanket Black and Latine neighborhoods that have been deemed “high crime,” or focus on particular tasks, like seizing drugs or guns. They use traffic and pedestrian stops to instill a sense of omnipresent surveillance and as an excuse to search people and their stuff, especially their cars. They have been given permission by city and police leaders, whether tacit or explicit, to bend or break the rules (including rules on using force), provided they get “results,” as measured by arrests made, and guns and drugs confiscated.

There have been assertions in recent days that Memphis’ Scorpion unit was an outlier, and that these units need not be abusive: They just need better selection, supervision and accountability. But as myself and others who have investigated and reviewed law enforcement agencies of all types and sizes across the country for decades can attest, Scorpion was par for the course.

The occurrence of non-abusive specialized units like these is unlikely given the premise on which they are based, and the tactics on which they rely: Their work is enmeshed in the “risky situations” (situational ambiguity; inexperience; salience of crime; cognitive demand; identity threats) that researchers have shown increase race disparities; they seek out interactions of the type known to provoke unnecessary confrontations; and the metrics of their success are untethered to community well-being, or, often, even crime rates.

These units have persisted despite the availability of viable policing alternatives that better reduce violence and address crime — including in areas deemed crime “hot spots.”

Further, and often missed when weighing the harms of specialized crime reduction teams, is the corrosive impact they have on police culture and tone more broadly. As I recently wrote, officers in these units are often rewarded for results achieved through tactics that run counter to a police agency’s stated commitment to fair treatment and community partnership. This can engender cynicism and resentment in those police officers who may actually be trying to walk that walk. Even more fundamentally, the very existence of these units, not to mention the celebrations of their “successes” that equate arrests and incarceration as the key to safer communities, makes clear to police officers and the public alike that, as in Memphis, “reimagining policing” is little more than a daydream.

These units have persisted despite the availability of viable policing alternatives that better reduce violence and address crime — including in areas deemed crime “hot spots.” Better policing approaches do not rely on saturation “crackdowns” and “jump out” stop-and-frisk tactics that crime suppression teams typically embody, but instead require police to work with community members to help stabilize their neighborhoods by reducing the underlying conditions that cause recurring crime problems. A broad body of research shows generally that approaches like this, based on “problem-solving” and principles of fair treatment, are more effective, require fewer arrests, and cause less harm and community distrust. What’s more, this type of policing is more compatible with building the broader set of services and supports needed for sustainable community well-being, ultimately ending our overreliance on law enforcement. 

Many police leaders recognize both the inherently corrosive effect of these units, as well as the availability of more effective, less abusive approaches. Nonetheless, they retain their specialized units.

Nearly a year ago, for example, Washington D.C.’s police chief announced his intent to change the Metropolitan Police Department’s notorious Gun Recovery Unit, reportedly recognizing that its strategy created community tension and detracted from actually “finding shooters.” This came after the D.C. Police Reform Commission recommended that MPD suspend its crime suppression teams and gun recovery unit until they could provide data demonstrating what they do and whether they are effective. Chief Robert Contee noted at the time that he wanted to focus less on the number of guns and more on identifying people who threaten to use guns. This would have been consistent with moving towards a more focused approach that, importantly, builds in space for other community actors, besides police, to help disrupt violence. Recent reports indicate that those reform efforts have foundered.

Similarly, last year in New York City, Mayor Adams launched a reconstituted version of the NYPD anti-crime units that were disbanded in 2020 during the protests following George Floyd’s murder. These groups, given the anodyne moniker of “Neighborhood Safety Teams,” are purportedly better trained and more sensitive to community concerns. Even if that’s true, it won’t make up for their inherent shortcomings.

These units bear the same hallmarks as their predecessors, NYPD’s Street Crime Units and anti-crime teams, which helped make the department infamous (and liable in court) for its iteration of stop-and-frisk, and committed some of the most sickening police killings in NYPD history — including the killings of Amadou Diallo and Eric Garner. Despite their supposed “laser-like” focus on individuals committing gun violence, the new teams reportedly are relying on traffic stops and low-level arrests. They’re touted as “elite,” operate in areas described as “crime-ridden” and ride around in groups in modified uniforms and unmarked cars. The department provides special access to media outlets that tout these teams’ gun arrest stats, and gloss over the violence associated with their work. The mayor has emphasized that these new, “handpicked” teams will get better legal training, but he knows the harm these units can commit within the overly broad discretion granted by law. It isn’t clear how different these teams will turn out to be; it is clear that anyone who cares about sustainable safety and police legitimacy in New York City is right to be concerned.

The inherent risks of teams like these, and the availability of more effective alternatives, raises the question of why these specialized units persist, and why, when they are disbanded, they tend to be quickly rebranded and reemerge.

Part of the reason is simply that policing has hoisted itself on its own petard. For decades, police and city leaders have touted aggressive stops, searches, arrests and seizing contraband as the answer — sometimes the only answer — to combating crime spikes and violence. There has never been reliable evidence that this is the case, and this strategy has become even more of a mismatch given increasing drug legalization and dramatic loosening of gun regulations.

But the public (and much of law enforcement) has been conditioned to see this as an essential truth of public safety, and police and political leaders, including those who recognize that this approach does more harm than good, would have to overcome this broadly held belief to make permanently doing away with these units politically viable. In other words, just as many police and political leaders have for decades spread misinformation about community safety that now makes ending our overreliance on policing more difficult, they also have spread misinformation about community safety that makes it difficult to shift tactics and strategies even within policing.

Additionally, we have normalized an extraordinary amount of violence in policing. As just two among scores of examples, we legally allow police dogs to maul people, including children, for minor offenses, and police are legally permitted to kill someone even when it would be just as easy to retreat, as long as they feel seriously endangered, and regardless of whether the interaction was prompted by any criminal suspicion. This normalization of unnecessary violence by police causes us to discount the harm of the violence that the crime suppression approach to policing requires. Rarely does a beating that doesn’t cause a death make the news, and lesser violence barely registers.

As a result, efforts to change policing are episodic and haphazard — prompted by a (relatively infrequent) use of force that causes death, rather than in response to the daily police violence that we, collectively, have come to accept. This makes it easier for police violence to return to “normal,” and, when it does, the motivation for change dissipates.

We tolerate an approach to policing in Black and Latine neighborhoods that we would never tolerate in white neighborhoods.

These two dynamics combine with an invidious feature of our history to further decrease the odds of true change. There is a belief, often but not always unstated, that reducing crime in Black and Latine communities requires that we tolerate a certain amount of degrading treatment and brutality in those neighborhoods. This belief is remarkably if predictably resilient, even in the face of solid research and lived experience demonstrating its falsity.

Even police and public leaders who do not subscribe to this false and racist narrative themselves often have a keen understanding that it underlies the politics of public safety. Whether resulting from genuinely held beliefs or mere submission to supposed political realities, the outcome is identical: We tolerate an approach to policing in Black and Latine neighborhoods that we would never tolerate in white neighborhoods, regardless of whether it uniquely reduced crime and whether we could imagine viable alternatives.

Getting rid of crime reduction units won’t fix policing. But it would reduce policing’s harms. As importantly, it would be a concrete step towards a system of public safety based on principles of reason and equity, rather than on practices rooted in racism and the normalization of police violence.