The five Memphis police officers charged on Thursday with murdering Tyre Nichols after he was stopped for an alleged traffic violation were not ordinary cops on the beat. They were members of an elite unit bearing the type of name usually given to a villainous secret society in a James Bond movie: SCORPION. As journalist Radley Balko, who specializes in writing about police abuse, noted in The New York Times, “The SCORPION program has all the markings of similar ‘elite’ police teams around the country, assembled for the broad purpose of fighting crime, which operate with far more leeway and less oversight than do regular police.” (The SCORPION unit was disbanded on Saturday).
Similar units have been created in many cities over the last few decades: Detroit had STRESS (or Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), Los Angeles had CRASH (or Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums program), Chicago had SOS (or Special Operations Section), and New York had its Street Crimes Unit (different from the others only in lacking a catchy acronym).
As Balko documents, these so-called “elite” units are often hotbeds of police brutality. Because they are given more leeway than regular cops, special units tend to attract cowboys with badges who feel empowered to run roughshod over civilian lives. New York’s Street Crimes Unit was responsible for the notorious 1999 killing of the unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo. “Though the unit was officially disbanded,” Balko observes, “later incarnations would take the lead in the city’s notorious Stop-and-Frisk policy, and would be implicated in some of the city’s most notorious police killings, including the deaths of Eric Garner, Sean Bell, and Kimani Gray.”
The most salient fact about SCORPION (Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods) is that was created in 2021—eight years after the formation of Black Lives Matter as a social movement in 2013, and a year after the police killing of George Floyd ignited the largest mass protests in American history.
Some on the right are already trying to blame the George Floyd uprising for Tyre Nichols’s killing. The five cops who were charged are all Black, which led Donald Trump Jr. to cite this as an example of police reform gone bad, with affirmative action producing bad hirings. On Sunday, the lesser Trump tweeted: “How many experienced cops left Memphis PD recently because of the constant attacks & defunding? How many were replaced by new cops who could not have made the cut it were not for that vacuum? How many of those hires were woke DEI candidates rather than the most qualified?” These claims were not just without factual basis but also nonsensical. There is no dearth of evidence of incompetence and brutality from white police officers.
The despicable and false narrative from the right makes it all the more imperative to have a true account that places the murder of Tyre Nichols in its real historical context.
The sad truth is that the George Floyd uprising against racist policing failed, at least in the short term, because it was countered by a bipartisan elite backlash that has entrenched law enforcement impunity. In 2020, millions of Americans took to the streets under the stirring slogan “Black Lives Matter.” These protests earned lip service not just from Democrats but also from some Republicans, like Mitt Romney. Institutions all over the United States, ranging from corporations to universities and museum, acknowledged that now was the time for a racial reckoning.
Yet all the rhetoric about the need for change in 2020 yielded very little in the way of results. Indeed, on the crucial issue of police violence, there is ample evidence of a substantial regression. According to the group Mapping Police violence, police in 2022 killed 1,186 civilians. This means “police killed more people in 2022 than any other year in the past decade.” African Americans make up 26 percent of those killed by police—although they are only 13 percent of the population.
On the Republican side, it is easy enough to understand what happened: Figures like Romney were always anomalies. Donald Trump, despite occasional rhetorical and policy gestures toward criminal justice reform, was too much of a racist to ever accept wholesale police reform. Trump-emulating Republicans, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, have in fact doubled down on race-baiting on issues like critical race theory, civil rights, and criminal justice reform.
On the Democratic side, divisions within the party between centrists and progressives have stalled the agenda on police reform and racial reckoning. After the Democrats’ disappointing showing in congressional races in 2020, many centrists in the party blamed the Black Lives Matter protests and the slogan “Defund the police.” This claim never had any strong factual basis. It is strongly contradicted by recent research by Bouke Klein Teeselink of the Yale School of Management and Georgios Melios of the London School of Economics. In a recently released paper, Teeselink and Melios look at voting and polling data in cities where the Black Lives Matter protests were stronger and compare them to where the protests were weaker. Their data shows that the protests led to a “marked shift in support for the Democratic candidate” as well as the rise of anti-racist sentiments.
The evidence of this paper is unlikely to change minds, since the myth that the Black Lives Matter protests hurt the Democrats is too useful to the party’s establishment. It’s an essential rhetorical claim for centrists to rally together against progressives. Both President Joe Biden and New York Mayor Eric Adams have positioned themselves in interparty battles as friends of the police. Biden has repeatedly called for an increase in police funding, and Adams supports a return to stop-and-frisk.
To be sure, the backlash against criminal justice reform hasn’t been totally victorious. In elections in 2022, supporters of reform did win some major victories (notably Keith Ellison’s reelection as attorney general of Minnesota, with progressive district attorneys winning in Des Moines and the Austin suburbs) and also suffered some defeats (Chesa Boudin’s removal in San Francisco and the reelection of his replacement, Brooke Jenkins). Still, a divided Democratic Party is unlikely to achieve anything substantial on criminal justice reform. Congressional Democrats weren’t even able to push through Biden’s George Floyd Justice in Policy Act (which cleared the House but stalled in the Senate). While opposition from Republicans helped kill the bill, it is also notable that Democrats weren’t willing to override the filibuster on this issue.
As Perry Bacon Jr. noted in a January 28 column for The Washington Post, the failure to act on police reform is truly a bipartisan affair. Centrist Democrats have been too willing to respond defensively when confronted by Republican demagoguery. Even in 2020, he wrote, “the Republicans’ posture seems to have made Democrats such as Biden fearful that they were too aligned with the protests, and that would hurt electorally.”
But urban politics in America today has intense divides between more centrist and more progressive Democrats. The centrists tend to be more aligned with the police, the progressives with activists such as those who were on the streets after Floyd died. To weaken the left, centrist Democrats in urban areas such as New York Mayor Eric Adams spent much of 2021 and 2022 undermining efforts at reining in the police, since that movement was linked to progressives.
To underline his hostility toward even minimal police reform, Adams responded to the Nichols killing by dismissing concerns about elite units. “Units don’t create abuse,” the mayor said on CNN.
This cogent analysis can be pushed further. Republicans might oppose change—but Democrats enjoyed a trifecta in Washington during Biden’s first two years, as well as control of many municipal and state governments. With the exception of progressives pushing for criminal justice reform, Democrats don’t act on this issue when they have the power to do so. The inescapable conclusion is that centrist Democrats—not Trumpist Republicans—are the major stumbling block. As long as centrist Democrats prefer to fight progressives rather than take action, there’s no hope for the lasting reform we need of the criminal justice system. We may see individual justice in the killing of Tyre Nichols, but systematic reform remains elusive—a fact that indicts the entire political establishment.