Memphis squashed its SCORPION unit but many other cities rely on special squads, even after their own controversies
Memphis acted quickly to shut down its SCORPION unit when five members of the squad were charged with murder for beating Tire Nichols after stopping him for an alleged traffic violation. But in other major American cities, such teams are still common.
From New York to Atlanta to Los Angeles, these so-called elite units have been embroiled in their own scandals in which citizens have been harassed, abused, and even needlessly killed. But even where they were disbanded, they seem to be making a comeback.
Officers from the NYPD’s Street Crime Unit, formed in the anarchic 1970s under the slogan “We Own the Night,” killed an unarmed black college student, Amadou Diallo, in 1999. They shot him 41 times and hit him with 19 bullets. When he grabbed something they feared it was a gun but his wallet.
These 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, makes me sad and heartbroken.”
A few decades after Diallo’s death, New York dispatched hundreds of plainclothes officers from another crime-fighting unit. This followed mass protests over the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and marked what then-Commissioner Dermot Shea described as one of the final chapters in the controversial stop-and-frisk policy, which was overwhelmingly against blacks and Latinos judged 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 question the decisions made in Memphis, saying, “Units don’t cause abuse. Abusive behavior creates abuse.”
Adams, who was beaten by police as a teenager before becoming a longtime member of the NYPD, stood by his decision to bring back a special forces unit.
“We have an obligation to use all tools properly to ensure the safety of citizens,” he said.
Establishing the SCORPION unit in Memphis was also one of Cerelyn “CJ” Davis’ first major decisions when she became the city’s police chief in 2021. She told CNN there was a “community outcry” amid a record number of killings in Memphis in 2021 and led to the unit, whose acronym stood for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.
Davis was no stranger to elite police squads, having worked as a special operations commander for the Atlanta Police Department, overseeing teams such as the RED DOG unit. RED DOG itself shut down in 2011 after years of complaints, including a federal lawsuit being filed by patrons at a gay bar after an aggressive raid.
Atlanta’s RED DOG unit—their acronym is believed to stand for “Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia”—was politically popular, and Memphis’ SCORPION also received praise.
Just weeks after launch, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland stated, “The SCORPION unit had a total of 566 arrests – 390 of which were felony arrests. They seized over $103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles and 253 weapons.”
According to Ed Davis, a former Boston Police Commissioner, those numbers should have been a red flag in and of themselves.
“When you put a unit like this out on the street in this environment and you look at a number where they take 170 or 180 people into custody every month after the unit started, you have to look more closely at what they are doing – what these allegations are , which is the probable cause, which is the reason for the stops,” he told Kasie Hunt on the CNN Newsroom Monday.
“These units can get out of control very quickly. If you don’t pay close attention to the monitoring part, you’ve got a problem,” he said. “You have to constantly monitor what these special forces are doing out there to make sure that this type of deviant behavior doesn’t occur.”
He also questioned why these squads were given such aggressive names.
“The other side of that is the culture,” he told Hunt. “If you call 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 forces can work, but only if officers listen to the community.
“One of my first meetings, which I attended as the new Boston Police Commissioner, went to Mission Hill and listened to a group of 200 to 300 young black men tell me our units were jumping out of the cars and the boys on their heads stand to see if a gun would come out. I went back and met with the gang unit afterwards and I made it very clear that this wasn’t the mission I wanted to complete. … You can’t suspect everyone who is between 15 and 25 years old.”
Some cities are also reducing these special forces units – because officer shortages and low recruitment mean they are needed back on the beat or for other more regular duties.
Others reinvent them. Prior to Adam’s plans to revive a crime-fighting unit, Atlanta established a Titan unit in late summer 2021 to fight violent crime and announced another in March 2022 aimed at repeat offenders.