Memphis moved quickly to shut down its SCORPION unit when five members of the squad were charged with murder for beating Tyre Nichols after stopping him for an alleged traffic violation. But across other major American cities, such teams remain common.
From New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles, these so-called elite units have been involved in their own scandals where citizens have been harassed, abused and even killed needlessly. But even where they have been disbanded, they appear to be making a comeback.
Officers from the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit, which launched in the city’s anarchic 1970s with the motto “We Own the Night,” killed an unarmed Black student, Amadou Diallo, in 1999. They shot at him 41 times, striking him with 19 bullets, when he reached for something they said they feared was a gun, but was his wallet.
Those officers were found not guilty of a crime, but the unit was disbanded in 2002 after a federal investigation uncovered racial profiling.
Diallo’s mother Kadiatou Diallo said she saw parallels between the units of the men involved in the deaths of her son and Nichols.
“We want people to be treated fairly,” she told CNN on Monday. “For this incident to happen, on top of all these cases that have happened, saddens me and my heart is broken.”
A couple of decades after Diallo’s death, New York reassigned hundreds of plainclothes officers away from another anti-crime unit. That followed mass protests against the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020, and marked what then-Commissioner Dermot Shea said would be one of the last chapters of the controversial stop-and-frisk policy that overwhelmingly targeted Black and Latino people in the city.
But within weeks of taking office last year, Mayor Eric Adams announced he would be reinstating a modified plainclothes anti-gun unit.
On Monday, he told Don Lemon on CNN This Morning that he would not second-guess the decisions made in Memphis but said: “Units don’t create abuse. Abusive behavior creates abuse.”
Adams, who was beaten by police as a teenager before becoming a long-serving member of the NYPD, stood by his decision to bring back a special unit.
“We have an obligation of using all the tools properly to keep citizens safe,” he said.
Creating the SCORPION unit in Memphis was also one of the first major decisions taken by Cerelyn “CJ” Davis when she became the city’s police chief in 2021. She told CNN there had been an “outcry from the community” amid record numbers of homicides in 2021, leading to the unit, whose acronym stood for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.
Davis was no stranger to elite police groups, having worked as commander of special operations for the Atlanta Police Department, overseeing teams including the RED DOG unit. RED DOG was itself shut down in 2011 after years of complaints, including the filing of a federal lawsuit by patrons of a gay bar after an aggressive raid.
Atlanta’s RED DOG unit – its acronym said to stand for Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia – was politically popular and Memphis’s SCORPION also received praise.
Just weeks after it launched, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland declared: “The SCORPION unit has had a total of 566 arrests – 390 of them felony arrests. They have seized over $103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles, and 253 weapons.”
Those numbers should have been a warning sign in and of themselves, according to Ed Davis, a former Boston police commissioner.
“If you put a unit like this out on the street in this environment and you look at a number where they’re pulling in 170 or 180 people into custody every month after the unit gets started, you’ve got to take a closer look at what they’re doing – what those charges are, what the probable cause is, what the reason for the stops is,” he told Kasie Hunt on CNN Newsroom on Monday.
“These units can get out of control really quickly. If you’re not paying close attention on the supervisory part then you’ve got a problem,” he said. “You need to be constantly monitoring what these special squads are doing out there to make sure this type of aberrant behavior doesn’t occur.”
He also questioned why these squads were given such aggressive names.
“The other side of it is the culture,” he told Hunt. “If you’re calling it the SCORPION unit, what message are you sending to the officers who are in it and to the community… Scorpions sting.”
Davis, who led the Boston force from 2006 to 2013, said special units could work, but only if officers listened to the community.
“One of my first meetings I went to as a new police commissioner in Boston, I went to Mission Hill and listened to a group of 200-300 young black men who told me our units were jumping out of the cars and tipping guys upside down to see if a gun would come out. I went back and met with the gang unit after that, and I made it very clear that this was not the mission that I wanted accomplished. … You can’t make everybody who’s between the age of 15 and 25 a suspect.”
Some cities are also scaling back on these special units – because a shortage of officers and low recruitment mean they are needed back on the beat or on other more regular duties.
Others are reimagining them. Before Adams’ plans to resurrect an anti-crime unit, Atlanta set up a Titan Unit in the late summer of 2021 to target violent crime and announced another in March 2022 aimed at repeat offenders.