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“Elite” police units increase both police and non-police crime

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The creation of paramilitary units within police departments is a disaster on every level, based on the fallacious premise that violence is more effective when it’s applied arbitrarily:

The SCORPION program has all the markings of similar “elite” police teams around the country, assembled for the broad purpose of fighting crime, which operate with far more leeway and less oversight than do regular police officers. Some of these units have touted impressive records of arrests and gun confiscations, though those statistics don’t always correlate with a decrease in crime. But they all rest on the idea that to be effective, police officers need less oversight. That is a fundamental misconception. In city after city, these units have proven that putting officers in street clothes and unmarked cars‌, then giving them less supervision, an open mandate and an intimidating name shatters the community trust that police forces require to keep people safe.

We now know that it was members of the SCORPION unit that were accused of beating and killing Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop this month. In agonizing videos of the episode released by the city on Friday, at least five officers swarm Nichols, screaming at him and issuing contradictory instructions. Nichols understandably flees. When the officers catch up, they take turns beating him over several minutes, while he appears to show no resistance. They demonstrate a chilling disregard for Nichols’s humanity, at times casually pausing to tie their shoes or catch their breath, then resuming the brutal assault.

The city of Memphis disbanded the SCORPION program over the weekend, and five officers have been charged with murder. But Memphis isn’t alone. Despite a sordid and scandal-plagued history, city leaders around the country continue to turn to similar elite police units as a get-tough response to rising crime.

As the Memphis P.D. website points out, policing is more effective when there’s mutual trust and respect between police officers and the communities they serve. The police can’t investigate crime unless people in the community are willing to talk to them or to flag problems in the first place. That’s one reason there’s such a strong correlation between cities with persistently high rates of violent crime — cities like Chicago, Baltimore, St. Louis, Cleveland and New Orleans — and cities with persistent, well-documented histories of police abuse. These cities also tend to have low rates for solving crimes and closing cases, further undermining the relationship between the police and residents.

Programs like SCORPION are a big part of the problem.

These units are typically touted as the best of the best — teams of highly experienced, carefully selected officers with stable temperaments, who have earned the right to work with less supervision. It isn’t difficult to see the dangers of telling police officers again and again that they are “elite,” but what’s really remarkable is how far that ideal is from the reality. As Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles deputy police chief and former SWAT officer, once told me, “The guys who really want to be on the SWAT team are the last people you should be putting on the SWAT team.” These units tend to attract aggressive, rules-skirting officers who then bring in like-minded colleagues to join them.

One former Memphis officer told CBS News that ‌SCORPION hired young and inexperienced officers with a propensity for aggression. Their “training” consisted of “three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of criminal apprehension instruction and one day at the firing range.” One of the five officers indicted in Nichols’s murder had a prior complaint against him, and the civil rights attorney Ben Crump said he has already heard from other people who say they were abused by the unit.

The name of the team gives the game away. You call a unit SCORPION or Strike Force because you want to instill fear and because you want to attract police officers who enjoy being feared.

Relatedly, this is a comprehensive account of the escalating series of Catch-22 questions the Memphis used a pretext to beat Trye Nichols — who was pulled over for no particular reason and posed no threat whatsoever to the officers at any point — to death. Many of the commands were impossible to comply with, and even when he was able to it didn’t matter. It’s the kind of chilling group sociopathy that happens when you all but tell armed agents that they’re above the law and fighting a war.

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