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Opinion: Why It's Time To End Police 'Crime Suppression' Units

Last week, after five Memphis police officers were charged with murdering their son, Tyre Nichols’s family called for the dissolution of Scorpion, the specialized policing unit where those officers were assigned. On Saturday, Memphis shut the unit down. Other cities should follow Memphis’s lead and disband their own analogous — and outdated — units, writes former U.S. Justice Department civil-rights attorney Christy Lopez in the Washington Post. Most mid-size to large cities have one or more units like Scorpion, focused on areas considered to be crime “hot spots” or on a particular task such as seizing drugs or guns. These teams have various names using buzzwords like “crime suppression” or “violence reduction.” In local communities, they’re often just called “jump outs.” Regardless of the name, they are all under official direction — pressure, even — to police areas deemed high-crime, nearly always majority Black or Latino, often using traffic and pedestrian stops as an excuse to search people and their belongings for guns or other contraband. It’s possible that Scorpion was a particularly bad specimen of this family of aggressive policing units, Lopez says. As one police chief noted, the name “speaks volumes about the mission of the unit and the mentality of the officers.” That “Scorpion” was an acronym for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods” could be seen as a mockery of genuine concern for community well-being.

The tolerance for inflicting community pain in the name of community protection is a thread that runs through these teams going back decades. In the 1990s, the Los Angeles Police Department’s “special investigations section” was an “elite” unit known both for the extraordinary number of people it killed in shootouts and for its practice of allowing community members to be victimized so it could make better arrests. During a Justice Department investigation of the New Orleans Police Department in 2010, a police official told investigators that the community viewed street crime “task forces” as “jump out boys, dirty cops, the ones who are going to be brutal.” These task forces finally were ended in 2020 after the federal monitor showed they operated with little supervision, made stops with “questionable legal basis,” didn’t document their work and endangered citizens. These units can’t be fixed, writes Lopez. Their problems go beyond issues with selection, training or supervision. The premise on which they are based ensures they will fail communities. These units reflect and reinforce the worst aspects of warrior policing. The cost-benefit analysis makes no sense once you recognize that we have underestimated their harms, and the benefits they offer could be better achieved through services that respond more directly to community needs and work to reduce the root causes of crime.


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