The brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by five police officers in Memphis after a routine traffic stop lwas reminiscent of the 1990s era of gang warfare and crack cocaine, when special crime-fighting units, acting with bravado and impunity, were unleashed in high-crime neighborhoods. Atlanta’s Red Dog unit was responsible for a series of scandals, including the shooting death of a 92-year-old grandmother in a botched raid, before it was shut down in 2011. Elite police units were involved in some notorious episodes of police misconduct in the 20th century, from the brutalizing of Amadou Diallo in New York to the Rampart Division scandal in Los Angeles, when officers stole drugs and money, beat suspects and committed a bank robbery. In recent times, amid Black Lives Matter and high-profile police killings that provoked protests, policing began to center on the mantra of reform and accountability. Some elite units were disbanded or ordered to operate less aggressively. The last two years have seen another significant shift in policing, as calls for reform and accountability have given way to demands for aggressively confronting a rise in violent crime, reports the New York Times.
Cities like Memphis are again commissioning specialized crime-fighting units to tackle the spikes in crime that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, a strategy that has helped bring down homicides, thefts and other crime in targeted neighborhoods but that risks returning to the problems of the past. Memphis' Scorpion unit, whose officers are now charged with murder in Nichols’s death, developed a reputation for pretextual traffic stops and aggressive treatment of detainees after launching in November 2021. The unit is being disbanded. Still, new or revamped units in Denver, New York, Atlanta, Portland and elsewhere are a reflection of how much has changed since the racial justice protests of 2020. “When we have tragedies like Michael Brown and George Floyd, it’s all about justice and fairness and people’s lives matter and we’re here to protect and serve and we’re going to get this right,” said Shean Williams, a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta who represented the family of Kathryn Johnston, the grandmother who was killed in 2006 by the Red Dog unit.