A car with dark-tinted windows circles the block a few times before swerving onto the sidewalk. A handful of armed plainclothes police officers jump out and order everyone out of a double-parked car so they can search it, striking terror in the seconds before red and blue lights flash or an officer yells “police.”
A similar scene plays out in dozens of cities across the country every day.
The beating and death of Tyre Nichols by five former Memphis police officers who were members of an anti-crime task force has renewed scrutiny on such squads, which frequently wear street clothes and often are involved in a disproportionate number of violent incidents and civilian complaints. Memphis police officials — after initially defending the SCORPION unit — permanently disbanded the team Saturday just hours after the release of video that showed immediate and prolonged aggression from its officers.
Police department leaders across the country bill the specialty squads as “elite” units of officers sent into neighborhoods as a direct response to an increase in specific crimes, often arguing they are a tool to dedicate additional resources.
But policing reform advocates and people who live in the Black and brown neighborhoods that these units usually patrol often say the officers employ aggressive tactics sometimes bordering on brutality, have little oversight and use pretextual stops of cars and pedestrians alike to search for larger crimes.
“Obviously it’s a complicated issue, and they are responding to a tangible problem being whatever crime of the day they are formed to address — guns, gang violence, narcotics. But Memphis is not an outlier here,” said Hans Menos, vice president of the Triage Response Team at the Center for Policing Equity. “I don’t see any other option we have as a country but to say this is not working. This is leading to pain, injury and death.”
Menos, who led Philadelphia’s Police Advisory Commission, the former civilian oversight arm of the police department, said the units often are judged only on results without questions about how those were gained.
Less than a year before Nichols was killed, four officers from a similar plainclothes unit in Philadelphia tasked with getting illegal guns off the street initiated a stop in an unmarked car of two juveniles on bikes.
Department leaders have said the officers turned on their flashing lights before 12-year-old Thomas T.J. Siderio, allegedly fired a shot at the car. One of the officers chased down Siderio, fatally shooting him in the back as he fled. Prosecutors who charged that officer with murder said the boy was unarmed when he was shot.
But there were warning signs in Philadelphia that task force officers were acting aggressively or recklessly for months before the shooting — including car wrecks and citizen complaints.
Police leaders in several departments have argued that the high number of complaints and violent incidents in these squads are due to the exact work they are asked to do — interrupt patterns of dangerous crime often involving guns or drugs.
In Memphis, police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis started the Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods unit when she took over the department in 2021. The team of about 40 officers was designed to focus on repeat violent offenders after three years of rising violence in the city, including a record number of homicides in 2021.
Before she agreed to disband the SCORPION unit in an effort to speed the city’s healing process, Davis had defended its work, saying it had taken 800 illegal guns off the street and made more than 2,000 felony arrests last year. She added that she would not shut down a unit if a few officers committed “some egregious act.”
Menos scoffed at what he called a frequent defense used by police leaders who say a few “bad apples” commit those acts.
“The narrative that if this team was a problem, it was unique. Well, it’s not. … It’s not bad apples,” he said. “The reliance of departments on these young specialized units is one of the biggest structural problems in policing that could exist. They are operating with impunity in largely Black communities that are historically overpoliced. And we are compounding that problem by putting these overly aggressive, results-only oriented officers in those neighborhoods.”
Hunter Demster, an organizer for the group Decarceration Memphis who has raised red flags about SCORPION and other plainclothes units in Memphis, said people in neighborhoods with higher crime want more police officers to solve murders, but when the department puts these patrols in their communities what they get is targeted harassment.
Demster said a friend recently got pulled over by an officer in an “unmarked car, unmarked clothing. And the officer said that his license plate was bent in the corner and everything was still visible. They use that as a pretext to do an investigation into hoping they can smell weed.”
In Baltimore, seven Gun Trace Task Force members indicted in 2017 were convicted or pleaded guilty to federal racketeering charges for systematically robbing the city and its residents of money, drugs and jewelry using illegal searches and planted evidence.
Afterward, the Baltimore Police Department commissioned an independent review of agency operations and the resulting report included recommendations specifically aimed at increasing oversight of plainclothes units. The report, released in January 2022, called for more careful screening of applicants and routine financial audits for plainclothes and undercover officers.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison has also continued to shift the department away from a reliance on plainclothes policework in recent years, issuing uniforms and marked cars for so-called District Action Teams officers, whose focus is proactive patrols.
Terence Jones, a former Philadelphia police officer who served on multiple plainclothes units, investigated Siderio’s shooting in March of 2022 as part of his work for the police accountability nonprofit Total Justice that he founded. Jones called the shooting a murder after talking with neighbors and uncovering cellphone and security videos that showed the aftermath.
Even so, Jones was unwilling to say the units should be disbanded. He advocated for reforming them to include better supervision, ban traffic stops for unmarked cars and screen out any officer with a history of excessive force from the application process.
“These jump-out boys are a slap in the face to real police officers that did the job the right way without having to abuse authority, plant evidence or use excessive force,” he said. “But that lack of accountability starts at the top.”
In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams agreed he’d rather reform than disband the squads, angering progressives during his 2021 mayoral campaign when he promised to bring back a modified form of a plainclothes anti-crime police unit of about 600 officers that was disbanded during protests over the killing of George Floyd.
The anti-crime officers were tasked with seizing illegal guns but had been blamed for abuses like the 2014 death of Eric Garner. Then-police Commissioner Dermot Shea said when he ended the program in June 2020 that the anti-crime unit had been responsible for a disproportionate share of complaints against the department.
Adams, a Democrat and retired police captain, changed the squad’s name to the anti-gun unit when he reintroduced it in March 2022 and said officers would wear modified uniforms such as police windbreakers rather than street clothes.
Menos said Adams’ plan is a way of saying he’s run out of new policing options.
“What he did was try to thread that needle, to suggest that he recognized the problems with oppression could be directly tied to the tactics and operations of specialized units, but like many before him, he said, ‘Don’t worry, this time there will be oversight,’” Menos said. “How many specialized units are going to kill people, maim people, become criminals themselves before we say let’s try something else?”
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