When elite cops go rogue: So-called "elite" anti-crime units like the one that killed Tyre Nichols have a nationwide legacy of killings, kidnappings, abuse, and corruption. So why do cities keep using them?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

How elite police units, like the Memphis Scorpion squad that killed Tyre Nichols, commit the crimes they're created to stop

They went by different names.

Red Dog. CRASH. The Gun Trace Task Force. Street Crime Unit. The Special Operations Section. The "Death Squad." The Place-Based Investigations Unit.


But the specialized "street crime" squads, created in police departments around the country in response to rising rates of homicide and drug- and gun-related crimes, share a pattern of abuse.

The outgrowth of decades of popular policing theories that advocate concentrating attention on high-crime areas, "street crime" squads in practice tend to focus on drugs, guns, or gangs – typically in lower-income neighborhoods with fewer white residents.

Their aggressive tactics are so notorious – and so similar – that in many cities they're known as "jump-out boys" for the way officers spill out of their cars to accost people during stops. In Chicago, such units have contributed to residents seeing the police as "an occupying force" that make some neighborhoods feel like "an open-air prison," the Department of Justice found in 2017.

"They patrol our streets like they are the dog catchers and we are the dogs," one Chicago resident told investigators.

The proliferation of these "street crime" squads is under renewed scrutiny after five members of Memphis's Scorpion unit were charged earlier this year with beating 29-year-old Tyre Nichols to death in what should have been a routine traffic stop.

"What we've seen this month in Memphis and for many years in many places, is that the behavior of these units can morph into 'wolf pack' misconduct," Ben Crump, an attorney for Nichols' family, which is suing the city, wrote in an open letter to the city of Memphis last month. "The 'why' of Tyre Nichols's death is found in this policing culture itself."

Insider's review of nearly two dozen units established to target neighborhoods police viewed as high-crime zones found repeated complaints of abuse, discrimination, criminal violence, and corruption. Oftentimes, these units have been disbanded after egregious incidents, including the use of deadly force, only to be reconstituted months or years later under a different name when  they become politically popular again.

Specialized units have been connected to some of the most high-profile and flagrant cases of police brutality of the last 30 years, including the killings of Breonna Taylor, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, and Eric Garner.

"There are umpteen examples of this turning into a nightmare. These elite units are going off the rails," said Peter Kraska, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University who has written extensively about police militarization.

"It happens so often that you have to conclude this is a flawed model."

A woman in a Black jacket leaves white flowers in front of a photo of Tyre Nichols in front of a sunset
A woman leaves a flower during a vigil on the day of the release of a video showing the Memphis police beating of Tyre Nichols.Brian Snyder/Reuters

Tyre Nichols and the Memphis Scorpion unit

On the evening of January 7, members of the Memphis police department stopped Tyre Nichols in the middle of a six-lane road on the outskirts of the city for what they alleged was reckless driving.

It was dark. A group of officers, screaming obscenities, yanked him from his car and forced him to lay on the ground. One member of the unit used pepper spray, hitting Nichols and some of the other officers.

Nichols broke free and ran down a nearby street.

"I hope they stomp his ass," one of the pepper-sprayed officers, who stayed behind at the scene of the stop, is heard saying on body-camera footage.

About eight minutes later, officers found Nichols a half-mile away. Officers shook him, sprayed him with pepper spray, and kicked him in the head, footage released by the city shows. As Nichols staggered, moaning incoherently, some officers held him upright while others punched him in the head.

After several minutes, officers handcuffed Nichols and leaned him against a car. In the roughly 20 minutes before he was loaded into an ambulance, Nichols was mostly silent and motionless.

Nichols, who family members described as a free spirit skateboarder and photographer with his mom's name tattooed on his arm, died three days later. State police investigators said he died from injuries sustained during the "use-of-force incident with officers."

Memphis police officers Demetrius Haley, Tadarrius Dean, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin., and Desmond Mills Jr.
Memphis police officers Demetrius Haley, Tadarrius Dean, Justin Smith, Emmitt Martin., and Desmond Mills Jr. are now facing murder charges.Memphis Police Department

Memphis launched Scorpion in fall 2021, with four teams of 10 officers each directed to focus on violent crime. Memphis clocked more than 300 murders that year and 290 in 2020, far more than in the years before the pandemic.

Only a few months after forming Scorpion, Mayor Jim Strickland was already boasting that the unit was helping turn the tide.

"Since its inception last October through January 23, 2022, the Scorpion Unit has had a total of 566 arrests — 390 of them felony arrests," he said. "They have seized over $103,000 in cash, 270 vehicles, and 253 weapons."

Memphis police chief Cerelyn Davis disbanded the unit in the wake of Nichols' homicide.

The contours of Nichols's death resonate with New Yorkers who recall the era of stop-and-frisk, with Atlantans who remember the heyday of the Red Dog unit, with Baltimore residents scarred by the abuses of the Gun Trace Task Force – and with residents of dozens of other major cities that have established elite, aggressive units dedicated to targeting specific neighborhoods where police believe crime proliferates.

An elite squad's mistakes led to Breonna Taylor's death

Louisville, Kentucky's Place-Based Investigations unit was supposed to help police eliminate some of the most persistent violent crime in the city.

Tasked with going after drugs and guns, the unit, founded in 2019, was disbanded fewer than six months later after a botched police raid killed 26-year-old emergency medical technician Breonna Taylor.

The unit's very first mission was targeting suspected drug dealing on Elliott Avenue, miles from Taylor's home. But the scope of its investigation rapidly broadened to include Taylor, who police erroneously suspected of holding drugs on behalf of her ex-boyfriend.

Plainclothes officers, acting on false information from the Place-Based Investigations Unit, broke into Taylor's home with a battering ram, failing to knock and announce their presence as their warrant required. Inside, Taylor's boyfriend, who later told police he thought an intruder was trying to break in, shot one officer in the thigh. Police opened fire on the couple, killing Taylor.

Later, in a plea agreement, one of the members of the Place-Based Investigations unit would admit that she and other officers based the justification for the warrant to search Taylor's home not on evidence, but on a "gut belief."

Taylor's death helped spur the swell of nationwide protests against police brutality in the summer of 2020.

The story behind the creation of the Place-Based Investigations Unit shows how well-intentioned academic researchers and ties to other police officers can help such squads proliferate around the country, Kraska, the Eastern Kentucky University professor, said.

Tear sheet from an investigation of the Chicago Police Department
Investigation of the Chicago Police Department. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney's Office Northern District of Illinois. January 13, 2017United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney’s Office Northern District of Illinois

The Louisville department had consulted with Tamara Herold, a former Cincinnati police officer turned University of Nevada Las Vegas criminologist, about a study that seemed to show that focusing an increased police presence on geographic areas with high levels of crime could lead to sustained crime reductions.

Two years after Taylor's death, nine other cities had adopted the model, the Washington Post reported. Herold, who has said Taylor's death was a "horrific tragedy" but is "not a defining feature of this initiative," is still pitching it to police departments.

"Hot-spots policing can be very effective. Cops count. When police are present, we can have a significant deterrent effect," Herold told the Police 1 podcast last month, acknowledging that if done poorly, the model can "strain police-community relationships." Herold did not respond to a request for comment.

Memphis's Scorpion unit emerged a few years after a regional anti-crime group consulted with former New York City Police Department commissioner Ray Kelly on a strategy for tackling gang violence. Kelly is the architect of some of New York's most controversial policing strategies, including the creation of anti-crime units, and is a vocal advocate for stop-and-frisk.

Reports from the private investigations firm K2 Intelligence, where Kelly then worked, recommended Memphis increase staffing levels in specialized units to fight street crime. By 2019, according to the Marshall Project, the city had done so.

New York Police Department (NYPD) officers making arrests at 140th St. and Broadway in Harlem in 1995.
The New York Police Department directed officers to aggressively target suspicious activity in neighborhoods they viewed as high-crime areas. Here, officers frisk and arrest men in Harlem in 1995.Jon Naso/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Memphis police chief Davis also has prior experience with special street crime units.

Davis, who took the reins of the Memphis PD in 2021, previously led the force in Durham, North Carolina. Before that, she rose through the ranks in Atlanta, including a stint leading a unit of the so-called Red Dogs, an Atlanta street-crime squad that was disbanded in the face of abuse allegations and lawsuits.

Elite police units are magnets for scandal

Virtually every big city has had an elite unit that's been broken up after leaders concluded that it went too far.

Atlanta public safety commissioner George Napper created the Red Dog unit in 1987, at a time when Atlanta was dealing with a surge in crack cocaine use. Its name comes from a football play, but was later claimed to be an acronym for "Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia." An article in the Atlanta Constitution from its first year describes how the team would descend on reports of drug activity, make arrests, and seize drugs and cash.

"When the squad sweeps an area, anyone moving, especially young, black males, is told to hit the ground, hands behind his head, face down," the newspaper said. "Police officials admit the squad does little to reduce the flow of drugs into the city or the demand for them, but Mr. Napper said even what little the squad can do is important."

Two decades later, though, the concerns about the unit's methods and effectiveness that had been raised from the start came to a head. The unit was abolished in 2011 after a raid on the Eagle, a gay bar, whose patrons and employees filed lawsuits claiming that police illegally detained them and used homophobic slurs while they lay handcuffed on the barroom floor. The city ended up paying more than $1 million in settlements.

Tear sheet from an investigation of the Chicago Police Department
Investigation of the Chicago Police Department. United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney's Office Northern District of Illinois. January 13, 2017United States Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and United States Attorney’s Office Northern District of Illinois

Decades before Atlanta ended its elite unit operations, Detroit scrapped its "Stress" anti-robbery squad in the 1970s after its members shot dozens of rounds into an apartment where off-duty Wayne County deputies were playing poker, killing two. Chicago disbanded its Special Operations Section in 2007 amid a wide-ranging corruption scandal. Prosecutors ultimately charged 13 of its members with breaking into homes to rob residents and conducting illegal traffic stops to shake down drivers. Eleven pleaded guilty and two went to prison, including one who admitted to ordering a hit on a fellow officer he believed was collaborating with the federal investigation.

The Los Angeles Police Department's robbery-focused Special Investigations Section was embroiled in so many shootouts that it was branded the "death squad." And its CRASH team was broken up in 2000 after a member — who had been caught stealing cocaine from the evidence locker and replacing it with Bisquick pancake mix — flipped on his colleagues in what became known as the Rampart scandal.

More recently, in Baltimore, all eight members of the Gun Trace Task Force were charged in 2017 and convicted of crimes including robbing drug dealers, stealing cash and filing bogus overtime claims. And in 2021, Springfield, Massachusetts responded to a Justice Department report about abuses by its narcotics bureau by shifting the team's focus to firearms.

Police chiefs say elite teams are popular and effective

Many police leaders and criminologists say specialized units do work that other officers can't. Uniformed officers conducting patrols or responding to 911 calls don't have the time or tools to surveil gangs and gather information on the flow of drugs and guns, they say, and it takes dedicated officers to take criminal networks down.

In this Saturday, May 30, 2020, photo taken from police body camera video released by the Atlanta Police Department, an officer points his handgun at Messiah Young while the college student is seated in his vehicle, in Atlanta. The following day, Atlanta's mayor two police officers were fired and three others placed on desk duty over excessive use of force during the arrest of Young and fellow college student Taniyah Pilgrim, seated in the passenger side of the car. (Atlanta Police Department via AP)

The units can also be politically popular. "Police departments say these units are created in response to community demand for specialized policing," said Jorge Camacho, a former New York prosecutor now with Yale Law School.

The Los Angeles Police Department's robbery-focused Special Investigations Section was embroiled in so many shootouts that it was branded the "death squad." And its CRASH team was broken up in 2000 after a member — who had been caught stealing cocaine from the evidence locker and replacing it with Bisquick pancake mix — flipped on his colleagues in what became known as the Rampart scandal.

Meanwhile, police chiefs contend they are essential to fighting crime.

"It works. They make a lot of good cases, a lot of good arrests. Put a lot of bad people away to help solve the issue," Florida's Orange County Sheriff John W. Mina, who previously led the Orlando Police Department, told CNN last year.

New York Mayor Eric Adams is joined by police detectives of the Gun Violence Suppression Division at a Brooklyn police facility where it was announced that arrests have been made against violent street gangs on June 06, 2022 in New York City. At the event, which featured the mug shots of dozens of gang members who have been taken off of the streets, the mayor spoke and showed a graph of statistics showing that gun violence in New York City has fallen in recent weeks following his more aggressive policing.
Street crime squads are popular among politicians who say only aggressive policing will reduce violent crime. New York Mayor Eric Adams reintroduced the city's controversial street crime units last year. Here, Adams points to a chart of gun violence he said shows his policies are working.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The popularity of these units among some elected officials, criminologists, and law enforcement can sometimes shield them from scrutiny, allowing abusive practices and corruption to fester. Police leaders had been receiving complaints about the Gun Trace Task Force for years before it was disbanded in 2017, The Baltimore Sun reported, including a 2015 tip from a local reporter that the task force's leader, Wayne Jenkins, was robbing people.

Until his arrest on racketeering charges in 2017, Jenkins was widely considered "a rising talent," the Sun wrote, "with an uncanny knack for delivering the goods."

There's not a clear explanation for why so many elite units go bad. In interviews with Insider, experts suggested that a confluence of mission overreach, militarized training, inadequate supervision, racism, and other factors could be to blame.

Tear sheet from an investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department
Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. August 10, 2016U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division

A recent report from the Police Executive Research Forum, a law enforcement think tank, castigated U.S. police academies' "paramilitary approach" to training for prompting police officers to view community members "as the enemy."

Geoff Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, said lowering the ratio of officers to supervisors within elite units could begin to address some of their issues.

"When you have these young, aggressive, proactive cops all together, with no controls, what do you think is going to happen?" Alpert said. "These units need more supervision, more control."

Camacho said that part of the problem is that when all police have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

"You have a bunch of officers with a mandate to look at homicide," he said, prompting them to be "hyper-vigilant."

"They view anything as an indicator of violent crime," he added, "and respond accordingly."

"There is no hunting like the hunting of man"

Even after decades of elite units being shut down over abuses, cities have continually found ways to resurrect them. In New York, one notorious police unit has twice been disbanded only to come back from the dead.

The cyclical saga of the Street Crime Unit is a prime example of how even after egregious incidents, such squads are often reconstituted under a different name, even as their mission and tactics remain the same.

Established in 1971, by the late 1990s, the NYPD's Street Crime Unit was "known as the commandos" of the department, "an elite squad of nearly 400 officers," a New York Times reporter wrote in 1999, "dispatched into menacing neighborhoods each night to chase down rapists, muggers and dangerous fugitives, and above all, to get illegal guns off the streets."

They wore t-shirts with a Hemingway quote: "Certainly there is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never really care for anything else thereafter."

New York Police Department (NYPD) Commissioner Ray Kelly leaves a press conference after speaking about the NYPD's Stop-and-Frisk practice on August 12, 2013 in New York City.
Former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly, shown here leaving a press conference after a federal judge ruled the department's use of stop-and-frisk unconstitutional, later consulted on the formation of Memphis's Scorpion squad.Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The unit made up less than 2% of the force but seized 40% of the illegal guns confiscated by the NYPD.

In the late 1990s, the Street Crime Unit tripled in size, amid a panic over a rising number of homicides. Then-mayor Rudy Giuliani preached a "broken windows" policing doctrine that advocated zero tolerance toward even minor offenses.

In a city grappling with violent crime, authorities touted the Street Crime Unit as a bright spot.

"I wish I could bottle their enthusiasm and make everyone take a drink of it," then-NYPD commissioner Howard Safir told the New York Daily News in 1998. 

But on February 4, 1999, four members of the Street Crime Unit fired 41 bullets at 23-year-old Guinean immigrant Amadou Diallo while he was standing in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment building, after the officers said he reached into his pocket as if to draw a firearm.

Diallo was unarmed and reaching for his wallet, multiple investigations into his killing later found. The officers were acquitted of criminal charges and temporarily reassigned to desk duty.

The police killing sparked a maelstrom of accusations that the Street Crime Unit's pervasive violence, particularly against poor, Black and brown New Yorkers, had gone ignored for years.

Tear sheet from an investigation of the Springfield, Massachusetts Police Department’s Narcotics Bureau

Uproar over Diallo's death — and a class-action lawsuit challenging the department's use of stop-and-frisks, which plaintiffs said was a form of illegal racial profiling — forced the NYPD to disband the Street Crime Unit in 2002.

In spirit, though, the Street Crime Unit continued. Many of its officers were absorbed into new plainclothes units, called anti-crime units, that were charged with the same mission of preventing violent crime. And their tactics spread: NYPD officers made more stop-and-frisks in the early 2000s than they had in the 1990s, a second class-action lawsuit, filed in 2008, alleged. The ranks of anti-crime units grew to nearly 600 officers by 2020.

"The problem on a most basic, fundamental level is that the leadership of most departments does not want to deal with the Constitution," New York civil rights attorney Jonathan Moore, who sued the city over stop-and-frisk, told Insider.

The purpose of stopping so many New Yorkers for patdowns was explicitly racial, then-state senator Eric Adams testified in federal court in 2013.

An analysis by The Intercept found that plainclothes officers, including members of the anti-crime units, were responsible for or involved in 31% of police shootings since 2000, despite composing only 2% of the police force.

The anti-crime units were involved in notorious police killings, including the fatal 2018 shooting of Saheed Vassell, a mentally ill man, in Brooklyn; the fatal 2006 shooting of Sean Bell; and, in 2014, the death by suffocation of Eric Garner, whose last words, "I can't breathe," have become an emblem of protests against police brutality.

Amid the racial justice protests in the summer of 2020, another police commissioner decided to shut down the units. The NYPD "can move away from brute force," then-commissioner Dermot Shea said at the time.

But less than two years later, now-Mayor Adams brought back the controversial squads, this time rebranded Neighborhood Safety Teams, amid a panic over rising crime rates and a deadly attack in 2022 on two police officers.

Police officer Mike Saladino arrests a gambling suspect who attempted to flee as officers approached. Saladino is part of a special squad that is deployed each week to areas of the city where police think the most crime will occur. The squad tries to stop as many people as possible for minor "quality of life" offences or minor traffic violations in the hopes of deterring larger crimes. (Photo by Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images)
A member of Chicago's Special Operations Squad making an arrest in 2005, two years before the unit was broken up amid allegations of corruption.Ralf-Finn Hestoft/Corbis via Getty Images

Adams promised not to repeat the mistakes of the past. But he also said the squads were necessary in order to disrupt "the flow of guns in our cities."

Their early record has not been promising. Most of the arrests made by the Neighborhood Safety Teams have nothing to do with guns, City & State reported. The most frequent type of arrest their officers have made is for possession of a fake ID.

Elite police squads get rebranded after controversies

New York is far from the only place where notorious squads have been disbanded and reformed. The New Haven Police Department dissolved its Street Interdiction Squad in 2007 amid a theft and bribery scandal, then reconstituted it two years later. Miami resurrected its Street Narcotics Unit under a new moniker, but was forced to dissolve it in 2013 under fire from the Department of Justice, which partially blamed it for a spate of police shootings.

Experts say cities that stand up street crimes units risk replacing one kind of violence with another.

Such units bring "a new level of aggression and threat to the community," said Maurice Hobson, a professor at Georgia State University who has written a book about Atlanta's Red Dog unit.

After Atlanta shut the unit down, the city also created a new specialist team to take its place: the APEX unit. (In 2021, the unit was rebranded as the Titan unit.)

"From people in the community, the only change when the APEX unit came out was they changed their uniforms," said Tiffany Roberts, the policy director for the Southern Center for Human Rights.

The death of Tyre Nichols has prompted others to come forward with claims of mistreatment at the hands of the Scorpion unit. Maurice Chalmers-Stokes, 19, told Memphis media that he was thrown into a fence last fall by a group of officers, including one of the cops accused of killing Nichols. He is suing the city, and fighting charges for possessing a stolen gun that police say they found on him in that interaction.

NPR reported that four of the five officers charged in Nichols's death, who had two to six years of experience, had been disciplined by the Memphis police. One of the officers, Demetrius Haley, was disciplined in 2021 for not reporting an incident where a colleague — who resigned — yanked a woman from a car and dislocated her shoulder.

Haley was also named in a 2016 lawsuit filed by a plaintiff who said that Haley was one of the corrections officers who abused him at a Shelby County jail. The case was dismissed.

Moore, who worked on the New York City stop-and-frisk case, said part of the issue with elite units is that some of them are stretched too thin. But he said no matter how many supervisors are on the job, street-crime teams often do what politicians and policymakers want them to do.

"Leadership does not want these officers to have their hands tied," he said. "They want them to go out and be aggressive."

Read the original article on Business Insider