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“Elite” Police Units Face More Scrutiny as Memphis SCORPION Unit Disbanded over Tyre Nichols Death

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Memphis police have revealed a sixth and a seventh officer have been placed on administrative leave in addition to the five fired officers over the death of Tyre Nichols, after Nichols was brutally beaten at a traffic stop. On Saturday, Memphis disbanded the police unit responsible for the killing, known as SCORPION, which stood for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhood.” We look more closely at these so-called special police units in cities nationwide that operate with little oversight with investigative reporter Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces” and of the criminal justice newsletter, The Watch. His opinion piece for The New York Times is headlined “Tyre Nichols’s Death Proves Yet Again That 'Elite' Police Units Are a Disaster.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to Tennessee. Fallout from the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols continues to grow. The Memphis Fire Department has terminated two EMTs and a fire department lieutenant over their roles in the incident. The police department has also placed two more officers on administrative leave. Five Memphis police officers had already been fired and face murder and kidnapping charges. The five officers were all members of a special unit known as SCORPION, which stands for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.”

On Saturday, Memphis disbanded the SCORPION unit, a day after the city released the shocking police bodycam footage of officers beating Tyre Nichols after a traffic stop. Activists welcomed the decision to shut down the SCORPION unit but said much more is needed. This is Amber Sherman of the Memphis chapter of Black Lives Matter.

AMBER SHERMAN: We were definitely happy that they moved in the right direction by permanently deactivating the SCORPION unit, but that means they can deactivate all of them. So, the multilevel gang unit, the Organized Crime Unit all work under the same umbrella as the SCORPION unit, and they need to all be disbanded, as well, because just by ending that unit, that’s a good move, but then you still have these same task forces who are doing that same terrorism, assaulting people, overcriminalizing the poor and Black — the poor and low-income neighborhoods, mostly where Black people live, because we are a majority-Black city. We want to make sure all of those are disbanded so the citizens can actually be safe.

AMY GOODMAN: Increased scrutiny of the SCORPION unit in Memphis has prompted reports from other residents stopped by the same unit. Days before Tyre Nichols was stopped, Cornell McKinney told WREG the same unit violently pulled him out of a car at a gas station where he was picking up a pizza and threatened to arrest him for drugs before saying they were “just playing.” He tried to file a formal complaint but never heard back.

CORNELL McKINNEY: All I heard is a “Freeze! Get out the car! Put your MFing hands up before I blow your heads off! Both of you, get out the car! So, put your hands up!” So I put my hands up. And one of the officers proceeded to come to the car, and he physically pulled me out by my shoulder, with a gun no more than a foot away from my head.

APRIL THOMPSON: Cornell McKinney says he could get no response to his complaints to police internal affairs over how he was stopped without reason. His story is now getting national attention after the dramatic video of SCORPION officers seeming to do the same thing to Tyre Nichols, and going even further.

CORNELL McKINNEY: I was like, “That’s them.” I said, “It’s crazy. That’s them.” I said, “Now they done really hurt somebody. This could have been prevented if the internal affairs took action like I was asking them to do.”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, today we look more closely at these so-called special police units that operate with little oversight. Here in New York City, protests led NYPD to shut down its Street Crimes Unit after officers shot and killed Amadou Diallo February 4th, 1999, firing 41 bullets at him as he reached for his wallet outside of his apartment. Diallo was unarmed. The officers were acquitted of murder charges. Democracy Now! spoke with his mother, Kadiatou Diallo, in 2014.

KADIATOU DIALLO: When my son was gunned down in his own vestibule, he was doing nothing wrong. And that night, no one called 911 saying that any crime was being committed, has been committed that night. They just came with their guns drawn and just executed my son. My family and the community at large called for changes. It seems to me that call has not been answered, because we keep on seeing many victims of the same similar cases, and even different cases.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as New York City Mayor Eric Adams, himself a former police officer who has spoken out against police brutality and says he and his brother were beaten by police as teenagers, now says he plans to restart a controversial NYPD anti-crime unit that was broken up after protests over the police killing of George Floyd. The units will have a new name, Neighborhood Safety Teams.

No matter what you call them, our guest Radley Balko writes in The New York Times that “Tyre Nichols’s Death Proves Yet Again That 'Elite' Police Units Are a Disaster.” Radley Balko is an investigative reporter, author of Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces and of the criminal justice newsletter The Watch.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Radley. Thanks for joining us from Nashville. Let’s start off with what you are saying, that these elite police units are a disaster. Respond to what happened to Tyre Nichols in Memphis and how this illustrates what’s going on around the country.

RADLEY BALKO: Yeah. So, what we saw in Memphis is a very familiar story, unfortunately. What’s happened probably for the last 40 to 50 years or so, going back to the STRESS unit in Detroit in the 1970s, is when crime goes up in a city, the police officials and civic leaders decide, you know, they need to show that they’re doing something, and so they’ll start one of these elite units. And, you know, it rests on this false assumption that the best way to fight crime in a city, particularly if crime is rising, is to give less oversight to police, to sort of give police more room, more leeway to kind of knock heads, to supervise them less. And, you know, this isn’t true, but it is a way for these officials to kind of show that they’re doing something or they’re taking crime seriously. And so, what we saw in Memphis was, in 2021, when crime went up in Memphis, as it has all over the country, most likely due to the pandemic, among other factors, they start this unit called the SCORPION in order to, you know, again, just sort of demonstrate that they’re really getting tough on crime.

The problem is, you know, not only is there no evidence or data showing that these units effectively or even correlate with lower crime rates, they probably inhibit the ability to fight crime effectively, because they undermine trust between the police and the communities that the police serve. In order to fight crime effectively, you need to have cooperation from the communities you’re serving, particularly in high-crime areas, and you need people to call the police when something’s wrong. You need them to talk to you when you’re investigating a serious crime. And there are polls showing now that, particularly in African American communities, people are more afraid of the police than they are of criminals. And that’s just not a good way to promote public safety in these neighborhoods.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you in terms of that: Why are some of these units, or many of these units, then prone to be especially violent? The Intercept, for instance, reported that the special — the Street Crimes Unit and other special units like that in the New York City Police Department represented only 6% of the total officers but were involved in more than 30% of fatal shootings. So, why do you see this tendency in these groups?

RADLEY BALKO: So, I think what these units do is they concentrate some of the sort of more unfortunate or problematic parts of policing into one unit. So, because there’s less supervision and there’s sort of a longer leash for police to kind of skirt the rules, they attract officers who want to work in that kind of environment. And then, those officers, in turn, recruit other officers who are going to — you know, who share their sort of outlook on how policing ought to be done. I mean, when you call a police unit something like SCORPION or STRESS or, you know, these sort of intimidating names, not only do you — that name is designed to intimidate or instill fear in the communities that the police serve, it’s also designed to attract officers who want to be feared.

And so, that’s how, I think, we get some of these units staffed with officers who — you know, in Chicago, for example, one of their street crimes units, that was disbanded, finally, in, I believe, 2011, after a huge scandal involving kidnapping, drug dealing, police officers beating people, planting evidence on people — subsequent investigations found that, I believe it was, four officers on that unit had more than 50 citizen complaints against them, which put them in the very top 1% of the entire department. And that’s a department with over 10,000 officers. To have officers in the 1% of complaints in that entire department in the same unit tells you that that unit was, you know, designed to attract those kinds of officers.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You know, we’ve heard so much in recent years about police reform. We’ve seen in many — in several cities reform-minded police chiefs come to power. But why do you think the police departments of this nation are so resistant to systemic or a change? You talk about the barriers to that kind of change in a city like Little Rock, Arkansas, which elected its first Black mayor in 2018 and sought to bring in a reformist police chief. What are some of the barriers that these cities find?

RADLEY BALKO: So, I think Little Rock is a good example of this problem. So, in Little Rock in 2018, you had a mayor who ran on a police reform platform and won and became the first Black mayor in Little Rock history. He then appoints a police chief who is a reform-oriented police chief, but, you know, that chief was barely in office, and the reforms he implemented to start were not particularly radical. In fact, they were good governance-type reforms that other police departments across the country have had for decades. And there was immediate pushback from the police union and their supporters in the city, to the point where the chief was sort of harassed. There were rumors spread about him, a lot of sort of racially loaded rumors about harassing white women. They went into his finances. And none of these allegations and accusations ever panned out. There was no evidence for any of them. But he was harassed to the point where he eventually resigned and left the office. And the city police department is now led by an officer who’s in the department for 20 years, not an outside officer — more than 20 years, I think — and who has the full support of the police union. So, you know, there are institutions in place. I mean, policing is something that has evolved in this country since, you know, the 1920s, even earlier in some cities. There are institutions that have sprung up to keep things as the way they are, to sort of promote the status quo. And so, it becomes very difficult to overcome those interests.

You know, we are seeing some reform across the country. We’re seeing the election of kind of reform-oriented prosecutors, city councilmembers, mayors. And particularly after the George Floyd protests, we have seen some really substantive changes on the state and local level. You know, I think it’s just a drop in the bucket for what’s actually needed, but I do think, for the first time in — certainly since I’ve been covering this issue, in about 20 years, we are, you know, seeing some movement in the direction of real substantive change.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to the issue of conspiracy, Radley. The police officers’ lawyers, that are charged with murder, are trying to separate each individual and saying, “Well, once they actually go to trial, you’ll see he didn’t exactly do this.” And then you’ve got the one we have just learned, the white police officer, who was suspended at the time that the others were fired and charged with murder, who you hear saying, in the first stop — he tased or tried to tase Tyre — you know, “Stomp his A—.” I don’t want to say the whole thing there. But the idea of these units working together? And that’s the argument that the prosecutors are making, that unless they’re actually actively stopping the assault, whatever role they play, they’re all working to move in on and, in this case, beat and ultimately kill Tyre.

RADLEY BALKO: Yeah. So, I mean, that’s why I think after the George Floyd protests you saw a lot of cities pass a duty-to-intervene law, which basically says that if police officers see another officer violating someone’s civil or constitutional rights, they have an obligation to step in and try to stop that. Now, those laws are going to be really difficult to enforce, in part, again, because of the police unions. There is a — you know, there’s the — the blue code of silence is probably the most effective “stop snitching” campaign in U.S. history, right? It’s really effective at getting police officers to stop — to stopping police officers from testifying against each other, from turning each other in.

You know, in a lot of these cases — I mean, I’ve written about numerous cases over the years where you have a scandal like this, where you have a police unit that was shown to have engaged in massive corruption, and the only officer who’s ever sort of held accountable is the one who turned the other officers in or who blew the whistle. A good example is Adrian Schoolcraft in the New York City Police Department a few years ago, tried to blow the whistle on quotas that — the arrest quotas that the department had. And he was — not only was he harassed, he was eventually — they raided his house, and they forcibly interned him at a psychiatric ward, because, of course, you know, if you’re reporting on your fellow officers’ misconduct, you can only be apparently having some sort of mental health crisis, according to the NYPD officers who took that up.

So, I think there’s a very strong sense of sort of camaraderie within policing today. I think police culture has a very “us versus them” mentality. And so, it becomes very difficult to get even the good officers to report and hold the bad officers accountable, because, you know, a lot of those officers, if you do that, you’re not going to remain in policing for very long.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’m wondering — I’ve covered a lot of these incidents of police killings over many decades. And I was surprised — I’m wondering if you are, as well — about how quickly these officers were not only fired, but charged for this killing. It usually takes months, sometimes years or more, to get indictments of officers in police killings. And, of course, many people are wondering whether this had something to do with the fact that there were five Black officers involved in this particular death. Also, the issue of the fact that Tyre Nichols was a FedEx worker in a city that’s the headquarters of FedEx, where more than 30,000 people — it’s the largest employer in Memphis. I’m wondering your thoughts about how quickly there was movement by law enforcement in this case.

RADLEY BALKO: Those are two very interesting theories, that I actually hadn’t considered. You know, it was unusually fast for one of these incidents, but I think there are two other factors at play, or three other factors at play. One is, you know, I think this is one of the substantive changes that I think we’ve seen since George Floyd, even going back to Ferguson, is we’ve seen that prosecutors are more willing to bring charges against police officers in the really egregious cases. Memphis also just elected a district attorney who ran heavily on a reform platform, so I think there was sort of political standing or political support for him to hold these officers accountable pretty much immediately.

But the other thing I think in play here is that that video is just so incredibly harrowing and so incredibly horrifying. I mean, even people who routinely and reflexively defend law enforcement, people on the far right and the right, you know, even they aren’t defending the police officers in this. Instead, they’ve sort of pivoted to this argument that those officers were, you know, affirmative action hires or that this was some sort of example of wokeism in police departments. But I think it’s telling that they’ve turned to that. They can’t — you know, no one can watch that video and not be just completely horrified at the utter lack of humanity shown by those officers, much less try to defend them. So, I think both of — all those things played a big role in the quick application of accountability in this case, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we are going to, of course, continue to cover this case, as well as others around the country. Tyre Nichols will be buried tomorrow. The funeral is Wednesday in Memphis, Tennessee. Radley Balko, thanks so much for being with us, investigative reporter. We’ll link to your piece, “Tyre Nichols’s Death Proves Yet Again That 'Elite' Police Units Are a Disaster,” author of the book Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces, also the editor of the criminal justice newsletter The Watch, speaking to us from Nashville, Tennessee.

Next up, we look at how a special unit designed to protect trans women at Rikers Island jail here in New York has fallen apart, stranding many trans women in male jails, where they’ve been harassed and raped. Stay with us.

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