Policing The Wrong Way

Policing the Wrong Way

Policing The Wrong Way

Memphis’s Scorpion is the latest special police unit to come under scrutiny.

The Memphis police officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols were part of an elite unit known as Scorpion that was set up to crack down on high-crime neighborhoods. The officers’ actions as they stopped and beat Nichols show how the squad’s work could, and did, go very wrong.

Stories of botched work by special law enforcement units are notably common in the U.S. In Baltimore, members of a gun-tracing task force robbed residents of cash, drugs and jewelry. By the time federal officials investigated the New Orleans Police Department in 2010, residents perceived its special units as corrupt and brutal. In Los Angeles, a “special investigation section” in the 1990s was involved in multiple deadly shootouts. There are many more examples.

Police departments establish these squads with a good intention: addressing a genuine crime problem. But they fall short in the implementation — tainted by poor leadership, the wrong benchmarks or a culture of impunity.

Today’s newsletter will explain how Scorpion, which officials in Memphis disbanded last week, fit into a broader pattern in American law enforcement of well-intentioned efforts to fight crime instead leading to abuses.

The Memphis Police Department founded the Scorpion unit in late 2021 to do what officials call “hot-spot” policing.

For regular readers of this newsletter, the term may sound familiar. The idea is to focus police resources on high-crime neighborhoods or city blocks or even people (such as repeat offenders). They can also zero in on specific crimes, like shootings or drug trafficking.

The term is broad, and over time just about every big-city police department in the U.S. has said it is focusing on hot spots in some way. When done correctly, the strategy reduces crime without simply displacing it to other areas, studies have found.

But those three words are the catch: when done correctly. “When people use the term ‘hot-spot policing,’ that could mean lots of different things,” said Anna Harvey, the director of New York University’s Public Safety Lab.

Many departments ignore important tenets of the concept, sometimes resulting in abuses. For example, the Louisville, Ky., police unit that investigated Breonna Taylor’s ex-boyfriend was also following a hot-spot model. (Officers shot Taylor to death in her home in 2020.)

In some hot-spot efforts, police officers merely try to make their presence known — to produce a kind of scarecrow effect, as people are less likely to commit crimes in front of an officer. In others, officers aggressively enforce the law with as many stops and arrests as possible. Exemplary hot-spot policing demands a balancing act between maximizing the deterrence of officers’ presence and minimizing the social costs of hassling, stopping and arresting more people.

“You can do hot-spot policing in a way that’s super aggressive, or you can do it in a way that’s more respectful,” said Neil Gross, a sociologist at Colby College who studies the police.

So what went wrong in Memphis? Officials appeared to emphasize the wrong things, experts said.

Police officials deployed Scorpion to the city’s most volatile neighborhoods — “hot spots” — to crack down on all sorts of crimes, like reckless driving or shootings, with punitive tactics even against minor offenses.

City officials praised Scorpion for high arrest numbers, effectively encouraging aggressive tactics. Chief Cerelyn Davis lauded the approach, advocating “being tough on tough people.” (Officials could have emphasized other goals, like reductions in crime rates in specific neighborhoods, to help focus officers on results instead of antagonistic methods, experts said.)

“It’s the command staff implementing a version of hot-spot policing that is not consistent with what the research evidence says is best,” Harvey said.

The unit also seemed captured by a culture of impunity. Consider that at least some of the officers who beat Nichols were wearing cameras that were recording their actions. The fact that they punched and kicked Nichols anyway suggests that they thought they were above the law and could get away with it, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

It is a common phenomenon among American police departments: Evidence-based policies can fall apart in their implementation. Researchers can call for law enforcement strategies that focus on specific places and people and try to minimize the social costs. But if those ideas are filtered through a culture or leadership style that prizes toughness and aggressive action, they can lead to abuse.

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Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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