US elite crime-fighting units: a recipe for trouble?

Tyre Nichols’ death in Memphis highlights the dangers of using of elite crime-fighting units

Police Chief Cerelyn C.J. Davis
Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis disbanded the Scorpion unit
(Image credit: Tom Williams/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

When Cerelyn Davis became Memphis police chief in 2021, she knew something had to change, said Jesus Jiménez in The New York Times. Homicides in the city were soaring: they hit a record 346 that year; by comparison, New York City, which is 13 times larger, had fewer than 500. Incidents of late-night drag racing and stunt driving were causing mayhem.

Davis, the first African-American woman to lead the department, responded by setting up a specialist police unit named Scorpion – or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighbourhoods. It deployed some 40 officers to crime hotspots, tasked with targeting offenders and seizing cars from dangerous drivers.

‘Police not running amok’

The strategy worked well to start with, although complaints grew about the unit’s alleged heavy-handed tactics. Then came the shocking killing of Tyre Nichols last month, by five Scorpion officers, following a traffic stop. The unit has now been disbanded. It was an appalling incident, said Jason L. Riley in The Wall Street Journal, but an untypical one. Contrary to the impression you get from the media, America’s cops are not running amok. A 2021 report noted that police killings of African Americans have declined by “60%-80%” since the late 1960s.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

A 2018 study found that officers used force in the course of arrests less than 1% of the time. In New York City, police shootings have fallen by about 90% since the 1970s. Journalists home in on cases of brutality, but residents of poor communities “know better than anyone that criminality remains a much bigger problem than policing”.

‘Rogue cops with a cowboy mentality’

What Nichol’s death has proved, yet again, is that creating “elite” crime-fighting units is a recipe for trouble, said Radley Balko in The New York Times. Such units breed “rogue cops with a cowboy mentality”. We’ve seen it with Detroit’s Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets programme (Stress); with the LAPD’s Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums programme (Crash); and with the NYPD’s Street Crimes Unit (Motto: “We own the night”).

These units inevitably become “petri dishes for cultures of impunity”, agreed Christy E. Lopez in The Washington Post. Politicians like them because they deliver quick results: arrests, gun confiscations. But history shows that community-based policing is more effective in the long term than unleashing what are known as “jump out boys” on poor neighbourhoods.

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.