In the wake of the cruel and unconscionable death of Tyre Nichols, all five Memphis police officers involved in the incident have been fired and charged with second-degree murder. Scorpion—the aggressive, specialized police unit they belonged to—has been disbanded.
While it may be encouraging to see some measure of police accountability, rare as it is, no amount of reactive discipline can adequately address the root causes of this injustice—not the least of which is the ongoing, outrageous militarization of the American police force. The killing of Tyre Nichols is just the latest example of how the hyper-violence of American police can lead to senseless death and relentless dread, especially among Black Americans.
Scorpion was no anomaly. Specialized police units with a mandate for hostile tactics exist in cities across the country, and have for decades. In fact, Scorpion’s trajectory—created in response to a crime surge; engaged in egregious, violent misconduct; and eventually disbanded—is precisely what happened with the NYPD’s anti-crime units. (That is, until Mayor Eric Adams reinstated them last year. They’re now called “Neighborhood Safety Teams.”)
Officers increasingly view the people they swore to protect like enemies on a battlefield. While there is no shortage of reforms that could repair the relationship between the police and the public, an obvious start is demilitarization.
Since 1996, over $7 billion worth of military equipment has been distributed to federal, local, and state-level law enforcement agencies through the Department of Defense’s Law Enforcement Support Office, which manages the 1033 “Excess Property Program.” Over 8,000 law enforcement agencies participate in this program, which supplies equipment originally manufactured for war zones, including assault weapons, battering rams, and armored vehicles built to withstand roadside bombs.
This is the type of equipment used by the officers who killed Breonna Taylor—and the ones who severely injured Bounkham Phonesavanh, a 19-month-old better known as “Baby Bou Bou,” when they threw a flash-bang grenade into his playpen during a 2014 no-knock raid in Georgia. Then, when communities stand up in protest to atrocious acts like these, police forces use equipment from this same program, like M4 rifles and tear gas, to intimidate the public into silence and inaction.
The 1033 program was first reformed by President Obama, then un-reformed by President Trump, and last year re-reformed by President Biden—all via executive order. But clearly, such orders are tenuous—and as the death of Tyre Nichols shows us, reform is not enough. The ACLU has called on Congress to take legislative action and end the program for good. If there is ever going to be hope for law enforcement to play the role of public safety servants instead of combatants, eliminating the 1033 program would be an essential first step. (And if the Pentagon is bloated enough that billions of dollars of equipment can flow through what’s literally called an Excess Property Program, perhaps we should consider auditing that budget as well.)
For an aspirational vision of how we might enforce the law without relying on a heavily armed paramilitary squadron, look to the proposals of community organizations in Memphis and beyond.
Decarcerate Memphis, an organization focused on community-oriented approaches to policing, published a list of community demands in the wake of Tyre Nichols’s death, like removing police from traffic enforcement entirely. Traffic stops are the most common form of interaction between the public and police, and unnecessarily create potential for violent encounters. If your taillight is out, why do we need the person who lets you know to be armed? Representative Ritchie Torres of New York has proposed a program to reward cities that transfer traffic enforcement duties to civilians, or that invest in technology to enforce safer driving.
In Connecticut, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls trains participants in street medic and paramedic training, offering a viable alternative to deploying police as first responders. And the Bronx Osborne Gun Accountability Project offers young people facing first-time gun possession charges a way to avoid jail time, by participating in job training, therapy, and conflict resolution courses.
After countless news cycles like this one—countless deaths of innocent Black people like Tyre Nichols—it may seem unthinkable that we have any power to change this pattern of police violence. But we do have power. In Memphis, the Nichols family made several concrete demands, such as charging the officers, releasing their names and files, and ending the Scorpion unit. Thanks to public pressure, all of them have now been met.
The Memphis activists have been laser-focused and committed to systemic change. With a nationwide movement as effective as theirs, we could see a real, fundamental shift in the way American law is enforced.