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Five days after former police officers were charged with murder in the death of Tyre Nichols, the circumstances that led to his death renewed conversations about policing, the use of force and related issues. Radley Balko, author of “Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America’s Police Forces,” joined Geoff Bennett to discuss the new attention around elite police units.
Five days after former police officers were charged with murder in the death of Tyre Nichols, the brutal circumstances that led to his death have renewed conversations around the country about policing, the use of force and related issues.
We're going to spend some time on that again tonight, starting with new attention around elite police units.
Five of the officers charged in the death of Tyre Nichols were members of one of those specialized police forces known as the SCORPION unit.
It was created a little over a year ago to address rising crime. Over the weekend, the Memphis Police Department announced the SCORPION team had been disbanded, all of it raising questions about the effectiveness of these special police units.
Radley Balko is the author of "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces" and the criminal justice newsletter "The Watch."
Radley Balko, welcome to the "NewsHour."
Radley Balko, Author, "The Rise of the Warrior Cop": Thanks for having me on.
We spoke with Ben Crump, the attorney for Tyre Nichols' family, on this program yesterday, and he said of the now disbanded SCORPION unit that, when you watch the video and you watch how nonchalantly they acted while Tyre Nichols was on the ground in distress, fighting for his life, Crump said that spoke to what appeared to him to be business as usual for this unit.
What does that suggest about how these units are trained and how they operate?
Well, I don't know what it tells us about how they're trained.
What it does tell us is that these units are — that they are designed to suppress crime basically at any cost. I agree with Mr. Crump. I mean, if you watch that video, horrifying as it is, I mean, there's an almost sort of casualness to the way they go about beating Tyre Nichols.
At one point, they — one of them stops and ties his shoes. They catch their breath and help one officer find his glasses. It's one thing for police officers to get caught up in the moment, to have sort of a rush of adrenaline and maybe make bad decisions.
This was extended. This was over a long period of time. And so I think what that tells us that, while these are supposed to be elite police units, they are supposed to be the best of the best, they end up actually concentrating some of the worst aspects of policing, which is abuse, excessive force, and this kind of militaristic attitude of seeing sort of the people they're supposed to be serving as an enemy, a very sort of us-vs.-them mentality and approach to the job.
Tell me more about that, because you wrote a piece, an opinion piece, for The New York Times this past week.
And you quoted a retired L.A. deputy police chief and former SWAT officer who said to you: "The guys who really want to be on the SWAT team are the last people you should be putting on the SWAT team."
So I think when you name it — when you when you create one of these elite or so-called elite police units, and you call them the SCORPIONs, right, or you give them some other intimidating name that we have seen in other cities, you are — you're doing two things.
One is, you are creating fear among the people that those units are going to be serving and the neighborhood that those units are going to be serving, and you're attracting police officers who want to be feared.
I think, if you're a community-oriented police officer who wants to help people in your neighborhood, you're not going to be enticed or excited to join a group called SCORPION.
It strikes me that Memphis was among the police departments that reviewed and revised its policies after the police killing of George Floyd.
They instituted a ban on choke holds. They instituted de-escalation policies. Of course, none of that mattered when Tyre Nichols was pulled over on January 7. But it speaks to this question of, can this culture, can a culture like the one that existed in this unit, can that be reformed?
So, yes, I don't think it can be reformed when it comes to these units, because the entire point of these units, they're formed when crime goes up and when politicians or police officials feel like they have to do something to show that they're taking crime seriously.
And so there's this kind of knee-jerk instinct to say, well, what we need to do is, look, we need to supervise police less, we need to give them more freedom, more leeway, we need to tell them to be more aggressive, and we need to kind of look the other way when they bend or break the rules.
And I think that — we have seen the story play out over and over again. In my New York Times piece, I go into the history of these units. And L.A., Chicago, Baltimore, Newark, Indianapolis, I mean, cities across the country, when they have instituted one of these units, they have inevitably run into problems.
And, sometimes, they have pretty massive scandals, particularly in places like L.A. and Chicago and most recently in Baltimore with their gun — their gun crimes task force.
So, what then is a better approach, because, according to FBI data, Memphis was, I think, the most violent metropolitan area in the U.S. in the year 2020.
The following year, 2021, they had a record number of murders. So, what are elected officials in Memphis, what is the police chief in Memphis, what are they to do?
Well, I mean, we don't know exactly what stops crime. We don't know what causes crime for the most part. But one thing that does seem pretty intuitive is that you have to have trust from the communities that you serve.
When — if you look at where some of the most violent cities in America, these are also cities where there have been long histories of police misconduct and documented reports from DOJ and other agencies and organizations outlining long histories of police abuse, misconduct and racism, places like Cleveland, St. Louis, Chicago, Baltimore, because, I mean, if you're in Memphis, I don't think you're going to want to one of these — anything that might succeed the SCORPION units patrolling your neighborhood, because that sense of trust has been broken.
Radley Balko, thanks so much for being with us.
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Geoff Bennett serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. He also serves as an NBC News and MSNBC political contributor.
Courtney Norris is the deputy senior producer of national affairs for the NewsHour. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @courtneyknorris
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