At Last! A Persuasive Explanation For The Tyre Nichols Police Attack That Doesn’t Involve “White Supremacy”

Radley Balko, the former “Reason” investigative reporter who, as long as he isn’t discussing Donald Trump-related issues, is still a reliable, perceptive and ethical analyst, has a guest essay in the New York Times convincingly arguing that the tragedy was a predicable result of the ““elite” police team fad around the country. “Elite police teams” are, he explains, assembled for the broad purpose of fighting crime waves, and they intentionally operate with far more freedom and less oversight than police officers normally do.

The five officers who terrorized and eventually killed young Tyre Nichols were members of the 10-officer Memphis version of this phenomenon, and were collectively called “Scorpion.” Balko points out that the name is a tell: though the Memphis police force website emphasizes the importance of winning the community’s trust, the theory behind elite police teams is that they should inspire fear.

When I first learned that the Memphis police had shut down Scorpion in response to the Nichols tragedy, my initial reaction was that this was the Barn Door Fallacy, a rush to eliminate what was being blamed for a disastrous event without any evidence that doing so will have a beneficial effect, in order to be perceived as doing something. Balko makes a strong argument that these teams are ticking bombs:

In city after city, these units have proven that putting officers in street clothes and unmarked cars‌, then giving them less supervision, an open mandate and an intimidating name shatters the community trust that police forces require to keep people safe….Despite a sordid and scandal-plagued history, city leaders around the country continue to turn to similar elite police units as a get-tough response to rising crime [and] [t]hese cities also tend to have low rates for solving crimes and closing cases, further undermining the relationship between the police and residents.

Programs like SCORPION are a big part of the problem. These units are typically touted as the best of the best — teams of highly experienced, carefully selected officers with stable temperaments, who have earned the right to work with less supervision. It isn’t difficult to see the dangers of telling police officers again and again that they are “elite,” but what’s really remarkable is how far that ideal is from the reality. As Stephen Downing, a retired Los Angeles deputy police chief and former SWAT officer, once told me, “The guys who really want to be on the SWAT team are the last people you should be putting on the SWAT team.” These units tend to attract aggressive, rules-skirting officers who then bring in like-minded colleagues to join them.

Balko’s analysis dovetails nicely into Ethics Alarms’ Comment of the Day by Emily, in which she attributes the police behavior in the Nichols incident to mob psychology. Cities like Memphis have assembled officially sanctioned mobs, or gangs.

Balko writes,

One former Memphis officer told CBS News that ‌SCORPION hired young and inexperienced officers with a propensity for aggression. Their “training” consisted of “three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of criminal apprehension instruction and one day at the firing range.

He then reviews some horror stories involving “elite police teams” in other cities. [T]he units — which often, like SCORPION, included Black officers” he writes, “gave politicians bragging rights to a record of arrests and gun confiscations. But behind that record were rogue cops with a cowboy mentality.” Balko concludes,

“Scandals involving elite police units have also hit Indianapolis, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Newark, Pomona, Milwaukee, Greensboro and Fresno, among others. Most recently, eight officers from a unit in Baltimore were convicted and imprisoned after allegations that they robbed city residents, stole from local businesses, sold drugs and carried BB guns to plant on people.

The evidence is overwhelming: Giving roving teams of police officers added authority, elite status, a long leash and a vague mandate is a formula for abuse….”

Read it all. Balko’s analysis sure makes a lot more sense than, for example, racist Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush, whose verdict is that Nichols was slaughtered “at the altar of white supremacy” by five black officers serving as  “tool[s] of white supremacy.” Yes, true to form, Cori wants to eliminate the police entirely, replacing them with “unarmed emergency first responder agencies, 911 diversion programs, civilian traffic enforcement, community-based and -led interventions, safe passage to school and violence interruption programs, behavioral health and crisis support treatment, nutrition support, housing security, and programs for youth and families, survivors of violence, and individuals exiting incarceration or criminal supervision.”

Ooo, good plan, Cori! Policing is a nearly impossible job; the years following the Obama administration abusing the profession to win votes and divide the country have made their job even less endurable, and the five brutes in Memphis just made it more difficult still. Cool and full heads need to prevail in order to somehow salvage law enforcement, and reasoned analysts like Radley Balko must somehow minimize the influence of  the idiocy from demagogues like Rep. Bush.

13 thoughts on “At Last! A Persuasive Explanation For The Tyre Nichols Police Attack That Doesn’t Involve “White Supremacy”

  1. I made a point earlier that is appropriate here. The concept of “broken window theory” of policing to mitigate crime needs to be applied to police departments as well.

    By actively addressing little abuses by police leaders will establish expectations the community can support. Dovetailing with Emily’s comment promoting the Broken Window theory to police behavior will deter groups of officers overstepping their authority. We need to reinforce among the police officers in any department that the integrity of the department comes before peer loyalty. When officers make it a practice to overlook minor abuses or cover for another officer the entire force becomes corrupted and loses support of the community it serves. The community is not blind and has long memories which means police departments and taxpayers can I’ll afford maintaining rogue officers on the force. Police officers should be reminded that depending on the circumstances it might be better to let a petty criminal go free for now than wind up engaging in violence against an innocent who has learned to fear you.

  2. In the 1990s, I helped create and supervise a “special purpose” policing unit, a multi-agency Serious Habitual Offender Community Action Program, called SHOCAP. Although a primary focus was on gang-related violence, I vetoed the name Gang Offender Community Action Program because the acronym GOCAP sounded… a bit ominous.
    I also spent some time in “SWAT,” first as a marksman and later as a negotiator. When I was on the team (ours was called the Special Response Team, SRT), the minimum service requirement was five years with all but a few members having ten or more. I had thirteen years on the job when I was recruited as a marksman. We also had a supervisor for every four-man tac squad, plus a team commander and deputy commander, so lack of supervision wasn’t an issue. The statement, “The guys who really want to be on the SWAT team are the last people you should be putting on the SWAT team” holds a modicum of truth. “Cowboys” are a definite liability, but you definitely want people on the team who want to be there -for the right reasons. The teams I personally worked with were well-trained and effectively and accountably led, but I know there have been exceptions.
    Memphis has experienced a lot of police turnover for decades. In order to fill vacancies, hiring standards were lowered. At one time (and perhaps still), Memphis PD led law enforcement agencies in the state (by far) in requesting individual waivers from the state’s mandated minimum hiring standards. They frequently hired officers with misdemeanor drug convictions and those who had been fired from other agencies. Additionally, like everywhere else, experienced officers have recently been retiring or just leaving Memphis PD in even greater numbers. I have heard from one former training colleague who says that officers with only a couple of years on the job are being slotted into specialized units like SCORPION. He says the standard was formerly seven years. Lowering hiring and selection standards poisons the well when it comes to staffing and supervising specialized policing units and makes significant failure a question of “not if, but when.”

    • The Americal soldiers were not elite in any sense, but elite military units (SEALS, Green Berets, Rangers, etc.), and civilian combat organizations like Blackwater/Xi or whatever they call themselves these days have all had rogue subunit issues. Balko is definitely on to something here.

  3. Before settling on SCORPION (which ABC tells me stands for “Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods”), they considered the following:
    WOLF (Watchful Order & Law Force)
    SHARKS (Special Human Active Response Keystone Squad)
    VIPER (Vigilant Investigators Pursuing Escaping Rapscallions)

    But seriously, some people need to take their own advice and learn about non-Eurocentric human history. Humans are perfectly capable of oppressing each other without the colonialist Europeans setting an example. Colonialist Europeans are just the ones who decided to see how much of the world they could oppress through the use of guns and boats. To solve a societal problem, we have to accurately define it.

    I am curious as to what people think of this resource which people in Atlanta can call instead of the police, to handle people causing disruptions because they’re in trouble rather than because they’re malicious. It seems constructive to me.

    • … Colonialist Europeans are just the ones who decided to see how much of the world they could oppress through the use of guns and boats…

      Not quite. It is a reasonably fair if over-simplified description of the more centralised French approach (leaving out its misguided revolutionary idealism), and even of the Portuguese and Spanish once you realise that they started in a less organised culture and once you appreciate that their priority was cultural assimilation rather than exploitation as such (they used that as means to other ends), but it is not a fair description of the others. In particular, that’s not where the British and Dutch were coming from, it’s where empire was taking them; imperialism grew out of empire, not vice versa. People from those countries, out in the field, became like that and worked towards that, and their precedent worked its way back towards the centre, but the centre started out from a very different footing. Holland started with the old “raid or trade” paradigm, and Britain started with “stop the Spanish/French/Russians/Germans/…” with a digression into “stop the slave trade” – all of which meant, put boots on the ground and led to “we’re here because we’re here because we’re here” (and then the likes of Rhodes found opportunity).

      • Of course, before that, Alexander set out to bring the world into some kind of great Commonwealth, and Rome set out to take those into the firm who they could not conquer, and then the Muslims set out to spread the Faith by the sword. Oh, and way back before any of those folks the Assyrians burned down cities, cut down orchards, and sowed salt into the earth so crops would never grow again. Man has been conquering men ever since Sargon of Akkad led his army of archers against Sumeria in the 22nd century BC and overwhelmed them (they had no bows). While a lot of this was going on, dynasty conquered dynasty in China until they found themselves conquered by the Mongols, and then the Mongols came as close to conquering the entire civilized world has anyone else ever did. Europe didn’t necessarily start the empire game, but they perfected it.

        But yep, despite what television shows like Chicago PD and The Shield might depict, the idea of sending plain clothes officers out into the street with very little training and a mandate to basically “kick ass” is a bad idea in modern times. It’s actually a lot older than you think. It dates back at least to the days of Elliot Ness and his small unit of “Untouchables” raiding stills by crashing a truck equipped with a snow plow through the door (also known as “the beer truck”) and not caring too much about probable cause. It probably goes back even farther than that to Giuseppe Petrosino putting together his own squad of Italian speaking detectives to infiltrate and destroy the mob by whatever means necessary and personally going after an enforcer called il Lupo (the wolf) who had harassed opera star Enrico Caruso, breaking his legs, and thumping him on a ship back to Italy, with a warning that if he returned he was a dead man. Then of course we have Wyatt Earp and the Vengeance Ride where he deputized his own group of gunmen to take down The Cowboys (he really did blow Curly Bill Brocius away without sustaining an injury himself, but Johnny Ringo committed suicide, he did not get a bullet in the head from Doc Holliday). Let’s also not forget the Texas Rangers and their Black Book. Apparently when the rangers were cleaning up the Tex-Mex border there were still a few outlaws who they just couldn’t build enough of a case against to put behind bars. That being the case, the rangers would put them down in the black book and let it be known that if they did not leave Texas, they would be shot on sight.

        Brutal law enforcement that threw procedure out the window is part of this nation’s history and part of its tradition of getting things done whatever it takes. It’s also not pretty, and sometimes is something that those who benefit by it are better off not seeing. It’s probably also something that has run its course and should be reined in or discontinued in light of current times, when technology is making it a lot easier to catch, indict, and convict. There is always going to be a need for plainclothes detectives. There is always going to be a need for SWAT, because there are always going to be hostage situations and high risk warrants. Is there always going to be a need for this kind of policing? Maybe, but it should be the exception rather than the rule, and those who are given this role should not be relatively inexperienced officers, officers who have histories of bullying, or both. Those who are given any kind of role where the use of force is more rather than less likely, should be much more carefully screened and trained. Otherwise, there’s going to be a lot more incidents like this, there’s going to be a lot more Shaver-type killings, and there are going to be a lot more shootings that are ruled justified when they shouldn’t be and beatings that never get reported.

    • Mmhmm, that’s going to do great work until the first person armed only with a clipboard gets stabbed by a mentally ill panhandler.

  4. Radley Balko wrote:

    One former Memphis officer told CBS News that ‌SCORPION hired young and inexperienced officers with a propensity for aggression. Their “training” consisted of “three days of PowerPoint presentations, one day of criminal apprehension instruction and one day at the firing range.”

    Is it just me, or would a normal person imagine that “elite” teams of cops would be seasoned professionals with exemplary records who received additional intensive training for such “special” assignments?

    I mean, think about it — when we talk about U.S. military “special forces,” this is always how it works. Back before the FBI was the secret police of the Democratic party, they were considered the creme de la creme of law enforcement. This is what we would expect of special task forces, “elite” units, Texas Rangers and other similar subdivisions of military and paramilitary services. Is that too much? Apparently.

    Jack wrote:

    Balko’s analysis sure makes a lot more sense than, for example, racist Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush, whose verdict is that Nichols was slaughtered “at the altar of white supremacy” by five black officers serving as “tool[s] of white supremacy.”

    Making more sense than Cori Bush about virtually anything under the sun is a bar so low a tardigrade could step over it with ease. Your comment is almost damnation by faint praise.

    • “…the FBI was … considered the creme de la creme of law enforcement.”
      I think the key word here is “”considered,” which in this case could be expressed as “assumed to be, based on the FBI’s own carefully crafted public image.” Don’t get me wrong, I worked with and admired a number of exemplary Special Agents over the years, and I am favored to call some of them friends. But there is a big difference between those guys and today’s FBI as an organization, which has shown itself to be fallible over and over, with its own share of bad apples and loose cannons. Its echelons of headquarters deputy assistant directors, assistant directors, associate executive assistant directors, executive assistant directors, associate deputy directors, etc., ad nauseum, obsessed with status and promotion, are far removed from those they command, the ranks of the working agents out in the field offices.

  5. Not for nothing, but this sort of thing always made it difficult for me to watch “Hawaii Five-O” because this task force (stipulated: this fictional task force) had some sort of immunity from having to follow the law . . . and they frequently crossed the line . . . but this was portrayed as a GOOD thing. Ugh.


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