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Why specialized police units like SCORPION may weaken community trust, not build it

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Memphis, the five former police officers facing murder charges for the death of Tyre Nichols were all part of a special policing unit. It was called SCORPION, which stood for Street Crimes Operations To Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods. I'm using the past tense here because the Memphis police chief recently disbanded the SCORPION Unit. But in other parts of the country, similar specialized units continue to operate. Journalist Radley Balko studied these tactics for his book "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." Welcome.

RADLEY BALKO: Thanks for having me on.

SHAPIRO: Why do police departments create these specialized units? What's their role supposed to be?

BALKO: We generally see these units created when crime goes up, and in particular when there's a lot of coverage and pushback to crime going up, and police and civic officials feel pressure to do something to show that they're taking crime seriously, and they're doing something about it. And so they create these crime suppression units. They're are generally given a lot of leeway, less supervision. They tend to take a very aggressive sort of confrontational approach to infiltrating these neighborhoods where there's a lot of crime, and they're given a long leash to sort of do whatever they need to do to suppress it.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the data, is there a record of violence across these units beyond Memphis?

BALKO: There is. I mean, this is the same story over and over and over again. You can go all the way back to the '70s with these units in Detroit called STRESS units that were eventually disbanded after, you know, scandals in which they'd been accused of abusing people, racially profiling, being corrupt. They've killed somewhere between 22 and 24 people. We see it in Chicago with units called SOS. We see them in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Newark, and then, most recently, in Baltimore with the elite gun crimes unit, which was disbanded a couple of years ago. And since then, I believe eight officers involved in that unit have since been convicted of various crimes and sent to prison.

SHAPIRO: Setting aside the abuses, if it's possible to do so, is there data suggesting that these units actually successfully reduce crime?

BALKO: Not really. I mean, it's - it would be difficult to even find that data or to come to any sort of conclusion because crime data tends to be really dirty. A lot of the data we have on use of force, for example, comes from police reports themselves. So we're relying on officers to self-report, which I think the problems for that are pretty self-apparent. But crime data in general, it's unreliable. It's - you can use it to detect trends, but in terms of detecting sort of if this particular unit had an impact on crime, it's difficult to say. And there's a reason that when city officials and police leaders tout these units, they tend to tout raw numbers like arrest numbers or numbers of guns seized. And that's because that's the only real metric that they have. And we do know that telling - that basing an officer's job performance based on the raw number of arrests they have is not particularly productive. It leads officers to just sort of go out and round people up regardless of how serious the crimes they're committing are. It's not the best allocation of resources.

You know, Memphis officials - the Memphis mayor did say in his State of the City address that - last year that crime had gone down in Memphis and credited the SCORPION Unit for that. But crime went down in most cities in the country in 2022 after, you know, a significant spike during the first couple of years of the pandemic. So it's not at all clear that the SCORPION Unit was the reason for that.

SHAPIRO: So if we imagine the scenario where these kinds of units tend to be established - crime is going up in a city, there's pressure on the mayor and other elected officials to do something - if the warrior cop is not the solution, what is? What would you like to see a mayor do in that scenario?

BALKO: That's tough. I mean, I realize it's far easier for someone like me to say what doesn't work instead of what does. One thing we do see is in cities that have consistently high crime rates - places like Memphis, Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis - those cities also have a long and documented history of police abuse. And I think those two issues go hand in hand. They also tend to have very low clearance rates, particularly in minority communities for serious crimes.

SHAPIRO: Clearance rates meaning solving crimes.

BALKO: Right. So, you know, if you live in one of these cities and you're a member of a minority community, you look at that and you say, OK, we got these units that are harassing people in my neighborhood, harassing me, my friends, my relatives. Crime is - they're not solving any crimes. Am I going to trust the police? Am I going to call the police when I have a problem? Am I going to talk to them and volunteer information in an investigation when I'm not sure they're going to be able to protect me? You know, trust is a very key component in police being able to effectively keep communities safe and solve crimes. And when you have units like this that are kind of running roughshod through neighborhoods, that doesn't build trust; it undermines it.

SHAPIRO: Journalist Radley Balko is author of "Rise Of The Warrior Cop: The Militarization Of America's Police Forces." Thank you very much.

BALKO: My pleasure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.
William Troop
Seyma Bayram
Seyma Bayram is the 2022-2023 Reflect America Fellow at NPR.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.