DOJ will review specialized police units in wake of Tyre Nichols beating
The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that it will review specialized police units around the country after five officers from Memphis Police Department's now-disbanded SCORPION unit were charged with second-degree murder and aggravated assault in the beating and subsequent death of Tyre Nichols.
The department will also review the use of force and de-escalation policies that the Memphis Police Department had in place at the time of Nichols' January 2023 arrest.
The reviews will be conducted by the DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.
The review of the Memphis Police Department was requested by Memphis mayor Jim Strickland and police chief Cerelyn J. Davis. The review will examine policies, practices, training, data and processes related to use of force, de-escalation and specialized units, the DOJ said, and the office will issue a public report outlining its findings and recommendations.
The review of specialized units will be separate from the Memphis review, the DOJ said. As part of that review, the office will produce a guide "for police chiefs and mayors across the country to help them assess the appropriateness of the use" of such units. The document will provide guidance on "how to ensure necessary management and oversight of such units, including review of policies, tactics, training, supervision, accountability, and transparency."
"In the wake of Tyre Nichols's tragic death, the Justice Department has heard from police chiefs across the country who are assessing the use of specialized units and, where used, appropriate management, oversight and accountability for such units. The COPS Office guide on specialized units will be a critical resource for law enforcement, mayors and community members committed to effective community policing that respects the dignity of community members and keeps people safe," said Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta in the department's news release. "The department is also pleased to be able to fulfill Memphis's request for technical assistance on the police department's use of force and de-escalation policies, as well as the use of specialized units."
Specialized units have faced backlash in recent years. In January, CBS News senior investigative correspondent Catherine Herridge reported that these groups are intended to fight rising crime rates in major cities, but the officers in Memphis were new to the force and had a very short training period.
Bill Bratton, the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and former commissioner of the New York City Police Department, told CBS News at the time that these types of units "require significant supervision."
There is no official data on the number of anti-crime specialized units nationwide, Herridge reported, but similar issues have been reported in other cities. In Atlanta, Georgia, an anti-drug unit called "Red Dog" was shut down in 2011 after officers were accused of using excessive force during a traffic stop and gay bar raid. In Baltimore, Maryland, a Gun Trace Task Force was disbanded after eight officers were convicted of racketeering and extortion. The city also paid out over $16 million dollars across 37 settlements.
The five SCORPION officers fired and charged in Nichols' death have pleaded not guilty. Two other officers were fired, another resigned "in lieu of termination," and three more officers were suspended, Memphis City Attorney Jennifer Sink announced in February. Nichols was pulled over for reckless driving, a charge that police chief Davis said investigators "have not been able to substantiate."
The SCORPION unit, or Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods, included more than two dozen officers who primarily focused on handling street crime. The unit's officers wore black hoodies and tactical black vests with "POLICE" signage on them, but did not wear uniforms, and drove marked vehicles instead of police cars. The unit used low-level stops to find violent criminals or search for drugs or weapons, the Memphis Police Department said.
In a statement, officials said they determined it was "in the best interest of all to permanently deactivate" the group and begin an outside review of the unit.
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