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The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols has revived a debate about special police units

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The fatal beating of Tyre Nichols by the Memphis police last month has revived a long-running debate about special units in police departments - distinct groups of officers who focus on certain neighborhoods. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, police chiefs around the country are now being asked about their special units and whether they can be trusted.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: After the videos of Nichols' beating came out, the focus turned to other cities that also have special police units. Tammy Fornier-Alsaada is the organizing director of the People's Justice Project in Columbus, Ohio.

TAMMY FORNIER-ALSAADA: And we keep saying, ban the jump-out boys, and we have to be saying it on a national level.

KASTE: By jump-out boys, Alsaada is referring to special units or emphasis patrols which focus on high-crime neighborhoods.

FORNIER-ALSAADA: They don't show up in the suburbs. They drop down in Black neighborhoods. They terrorize.

KASTE: The unit she wants disbanded in her city is a new gang enforcement group. The Columbus Police Department has taken pains to explain that it's not the same thing as what they had in Memphis.

LASHANNA POTTS: There's multiple layers of checks and balances to ensure that this unit is not a rogue unit.

KASTE: This is Columbus Assistant Chief LaShanna Potts, speaking to NPR member station WOSU.

POTTS: So one of the differences - these officers are in uniforms. They're going to be clearly marked. You'll know exactly who they are.

KASTE: Similar reassurances are being made in other cities which have set up special units in response to the increased violence since the pandemic. They're doing this because the research shows that targeting high-crime areas, sometimes called hotspot policing, is effective. Assistant Chief Kevin Hall oversees special services and innovation at the Tucson Police Department.

KEVIN HALL: You don't hear about the ones that are done right. And I would submit there's a lot of specialty units out there who are doing it right, and you're never going to hear about it. And they do really good police work.

KASTE: The problem is the history isn't good. Over the years, various kinds of special units, whether focused on gangs or specific neighborhoods, have been caught abusing their powers, planting evidence or covering things up. The most notorious may have been the LAPD's CRASH units in the '80s and '90s. Joe Domanick has written histories of that era. He says a common trait for the rogue units was that they saw themselves as separate.

JOE DOMANICK: They develop an esprit de corps. It's usually about being commandos, being the toughest guys and a philosophy and a culture that revolves around that.

KASTE: Those who know this history say they see a similar esprit de corps in the body cam videos from Memphis.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: I swear (inaudible).

KASTE: The officers of the Scorpion unit, still breathless from beating Tyre Nichols, talk about what just happened. And they seem to agree that Nichols tried to grab an officer's gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: He reached for my gun - slammed him (inaudible). He literally had his hand on my gun.

KASTE: But the department's investigators found no evidence that Nichols grabbed for a gun. Accused of untruthfulness, among other violations, the officers were fired. The Scorpion unit was disbanded. And now five officers face second-degree murder charges.

BARRY FRIEDMAN: I think these units are almost uniformly bad.

KASTE: That's Barry Friedman, director of the policing project at NYU Law. To him, these units have a more fundamental problem. Their whole mission is often the opposite of community policing.

FRIEDMAN: These special units are officers who are not answering 911 calls and are not particularly trying to forge any relationship with the community. They're just engaging in enforcement.

KASTE: Intense enforcement in a hot spot can poison the police department's relationship with that neighborhood. But Tucson's Assistant Chief Kevin Hall says it doesn't have to be that way. First, he says these units should be supervised closely and consistently.

HALL: Nothing replaces, you know, a commander of any rank to put on a vest and go out and spend the evening with one of these specialty units. They're going to get a filtered view, but they're still going to see what they're doing.

KASTE: Second, Hall says you can't give the units the wrong goal. He points to a recent experiment in Tucson in which some of his hotspot officers were given special training to be more respectful and attentive to the people they stopped. They ended up making far fewer arrests. And to his surprise, crime also went down even more in their hotspots. He says that became an important lesson.

HALL: Enforcement is important, but it can't be the metric of success. You cannot say the more arrests you make, the better the unit is. That is the road to problems every time.

KASTE: Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.