There’s nothing ‘elite’ about police units that beat and frame Black people, community leaders say

Historically, these units bring significant harm to the Black community.

Cuffed. Face down on the pavement. Police guns pointed at his head. Fernando Perez thought: “I’m about to get killed.”

It was 2015, and in Perez’s hometown of Baltimore, people were protesting the death of Freddie Gray who died there of fatal neck and spine injuries sustained while in police custody. Perez, was outside with friends near his home when a swarm of police officers showed up. “They came so deep with guns drawn, guns in our faces, telling us to get down, being aggressive, slamming us down,” says Perez. “It was chaos.”  

Perez said the police told him they suspected the group was responsible for a break-in and cuffed them. It wasn’t until a sergeant arrived and de-escalated the situation that the officers released them. Some officers were part of the Gun Trace Task Force, an “elite” anti-crime unit assembled to take guns and violent criminals off the streets. 

The unit was so corrupt that it became the target of an FBI investigation, and eight officers went to prison for a number of charges including extortion, robbery and overtime fraud. “They targeted everybody,” says Perez. “If you had a hoodie on, they targeted you. If you’re Black, they targeted you.”

Demonstrator Jihadou Kwantu holds a sign during a demonstration against the city’s “stop and frisk” searches in lower Manhattan near Federal Court March 18, 2013, in New York City. While the Memphis police department eliminated its specialized unit, other cities continue to turn to them. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

What happened to Perez bares some similarities to the police beating incident that killed Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tennessee, last month. It involved five now-former officers of an “elite” anti-crime unit — Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods (SCORPION). These units are prevalent in metropolitan police departments that create them as their solution to increased violent crime and gun violence. Memphis launched SCORPION in 2021 for that reason. But experts and community leaders contend they’re ripe for brutality, corruption and lax oversight within their respective police departments, leading to harm Black people.

“These hyperspecialized units require hypervigilant supervision. You want to make sure that they’re supervised and trained and not create this notion that somehow they’re not accountable to the rules,” Professor Ronal Serpas, a former police chief in Nashville, Tennessee, and member of the Council on Criminal Justice says. “The behavior [of the five ex-Memphis officers] suggests that they didn’t expect that they would be held accountable.” 

The authorities claimed they stopped Nichols allegedly for erratic driving on Jan. 7.  However, police officials subsequently said video evidence refutes the officer’s claim. Nichols died three days after officers stomped, kicked and punched him. The five ex-SCORPION officers of the now-disbanded unit face murder and kidnapping charges.

While the Memphis police department eliminated its specialized unit, other cities continue to turn to them. Just a day after Nichols’ death, the New Orleans police department announced a new violence reduction task force to combat gun violence in the city. “I cannot think of a better moment to establish this task force,” New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell said in a January statement about the team. “This group will be laser-focused on preventing violent crime in our city, as well as assisting enforcement partners to remove the most violent offenders from our streets.” 

Atlanta launched a crime-fighting unit in 2021. Last year, the New York City Police Department brought back its plainclothes unit (the city disbanded the unit in 2020). In 2022, the Portland, Oregon, police department created its Focus Intervention Team to address a rise in gun violence.

As policing experts point out, cities typically measure the units’ success by the number of arrests, guns and drugs they get off the streets. In the first few months of SCORPION’s existence, it made 566 arrests, took 253 weapons off the street and recovered 78 stolen cars. 

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis said its purpose was to protect community members from violent crime, including reckless driving. Memphis Assistant Police Chief Shawn Jones echoed that sentiment. 

“It is important to us that each member of the community feels like they can go to the grocery store or live in their house without their house being shot,” Jones said at the unit’s inception.  “So, for that reason we launched the SCORPION Unit.” 

But Reverend Earle Fisher, a Memphis community leader and others in the city had doubts. “They pitched it as a necessary tool to fight crime in high crime areas,” Rev. Fisher says. “We’ve seen these types of units before and we know what they’re about.” 

Police investigate the scene of a reported carjacking reportedly connected to a series of shootings on Sept. 7, 2022, in Memphis, Tennessee. Memphis police arrested a 19-year-old man in connection with the shootings of multiple people across the city while allegedly livestreaming the crimes on Facebook, according to published reports. (Photo by Brad Vest/Getty Images)

Historically these teams have serious issues in Black communities. “With this current landscape and the current patterns and practices of policing, all of [these units] are going to end up being battering rams for Black bodies in Black neighborhoods,” Fisher says. “All of them are destined to land in impropriety and in brutality.” 

That’s been the case in several police departments across the country. Atlanta had a unit called Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia (REDDOG), known for brutalizing Black citizens. In 2006, members of the unit shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston after a failed drug raid.

Joshua Byrd, a lifelong Atlanta native, remembers how it was on the streets when the unit was active in the ’90s and 2000s. “It was known that if you see them, you need to run. If they ever come around, it was pretty much bad news,” says Byrd, who is part of the 100 Black Men of Atlanta nonprofit youth organization. “They were doing things that folks felt were excessive and beyond traditional policing.”

Their reputation was so bad that Byrd saw someone get shot outside when he was a kid, and he didn’t call the police. “I was afraid of even saying I saw something because you didn’t want to do anything to have the police come to the house,” he says. 

Former police chief George Turner dismantled the Red Dog unit in 2011. “This is not a result of any one incident,” the former chief said back in 2011. “I’ve discussed with my folks for the last six months about retooling the Red Dogs.”

Chief Davis in Memphis, who spearheaded the SCORPION unit, was a former Atlanta officer. She led the controversial Red Dogs.

The Los Angeles Police Department had the Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) unit that was meant to go after the gangs in Los Angeles. It ended in an enormous scandal in the late ’90s as unit members brutalized citizens, made false arrests and planted evidence on innocent people

“CRASH officers developed an independent subculture that embodied a “war on gangs” mentality where the ends justified the means. They resisted supervision and control and ignored LAPD’s procedures and policies,” a 2000 independent report says about the unit. “The misconduct of the CRASH officers went undetected because the Department’s managers ignored warning signs and failed to provide the leadership, oversight, management, and supervision necessary to control this specialized unit.”

N366090 01: Protesters jeer bicycle-riding Los Angeles police officers from a bridge during a protest against the actions of police in the ongoing Rampart police corruption scandal, March 15, 2000. A war of words has broken out among city officials over the investigation of the biggest police scandal in Los Angeles history. (Photo by David McNew)

The plainclothes unit in the New York Police Department had a controversial reputation for decades in the city’s Black and Latino neighborhoods because of its stop-and-frisk tactics, which a federal judge ruled unconstitutional. NYPD data shows that most of the recorded stops were of Black people. 

Chicago dismantled its Special Operations Section (SOS) unit in 2007 after authorities discovered members robbed homes, residents and drug dealers. “The recent incidents involving officer misconduct have been disheartening and demoralizing, especially to the officers who serve this department honorably every single day,” former Interim Police Superintendent Dana Starks said in 2007 about the unit.

Criminal justice experts stress that if law enforcement agencies are going to continue to deploy these units, they need to follow a more strategic hotspot policing method as opposed to the zero-tolerance method in which police stop, frisk and question people they believe are acting suspiciously.

“The one scientifically proven police method that works is hotspot policing,” says Serpas. “If done right, it narrowly focuses on known individuals in a community committing violent behavior. That requires intelligence and strategic intelligence and operative intelligence. It’s not just running around, stopping everybody that moves.”

Residents and community leaders who live and work in struggling neighborhoods know they need law enforcement. But they say they want to see significant and substantial police reform and a comprehensive approach to eliminate circumstances that drive crime.

“Right now, in these communities where violence is high, it’s easier to get access to guns and drugs than it is to get access to a job that pays a livable wage or an equitable education,” says Fisher. “The philosophical approach to public safety has to change.”

And then, “[The police] have to win over the trust of the community,” says Byrd. “You have to give people assurances that you’re not just going to profile them and target them.”

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