Tyre Nichols' killing is disturbingly familiar, 'special forces' included

People protest in Oakland against the fatal beating of Black motorist Tyre Nichols
An image is projected onto the facade of the Oakland Police Department during a protest against the fatal beating of Black motorist Tyre Nichols by Memphis Police officers, during a rally in Oakland, California, U.S. January 29, 2023. REUTERS/Laure Andrillon

Feb 6 (Reuters) - The brutal killing of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers is tragic and shocking, but also entirely unsurprising.

In a sense, the reaction since the reports of his death – the repetition of a practiced playbook, almost by rote -- is the more striking aspect.

Republicans continue to engage in denialism about systemic racism and police brutality, while Democrats trot out the same tired platitudes and failed policy solutions.

Nichols’ killing is a result of state-sanctioned violence enabled by the abject failure, in just the past few years, of those same approaches.

Two years ago, following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Senator Corey Booker, a Democrat who led the last, failed effort to enact major policing legislation, described the inability to stop the killing of Black people by law enforcement. Booker noted six decades of commissions, studies and task forces, starting with the Kerner Commission in 1967 all the way up to the 21st Century Task Force on Policing, that have foundered.

"Nothing has changed,” Booker said. "Cities from Ferguson to Minneapolis have done a lot of reforms” and “a lot of these things have been done before, but we still see the killing of unarmed African Americans.”

And here we are again, with the same repetitive dynamics played out in the months leading up to Nichols’ killing.

Nichols was killed by officers with the SCORPION unit, which was created in October 2021 to stem the robberies, assaults and homicides in “high-crime” Memphis neighborhoods. (Nichols was pulled over without any apparent suspicion.) The acronym stands for Street Cries Operation to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods.

Specialized tactical units like SCORPION, which is now disbanded, are notorious for rampant civil rights abuses, as are the joint federal-state drug task forces operating around the country. Yet the units are viewed as elite and often touted by law enforcement leadership and even liberal political leaders who voice support for meaningful police reform.

In most cases, community members have called out their propensity for abuse well before the beatings, shootings and deaths – partly because many originated as an apparent backlash to civil disorder related to race or police abuse itself.

STRESS, a special unit created in Detroit in 1971, was met with massive protests by Black communities roughly five months after the unit was revealed -- after an undercover officer shot and killed two unarmed Black teenagers, according to a report on the history of police brutality in Detroit by the Carceral State Project at the University of Michigan.

The architect of the unit acknowledged that its aggressive policing had “perhaps been unacceptable to Americans” just two years later, in 1973. STRESS officers ultimately killed 19 people, almost all Black males, in the short period before it was deactivated.

In 1997, the New York Police Department’s Street Crime Unit was protested for keeping a database of all “West Indians” they arrested, according to a New York Times report in February 1999.

Plainclothes officers with that unit were responsible for a disproportionate number of fatal shootings, including killing Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea, two years later.

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn Davis, who developed SCORPION in Memphis, led another notorious special unit, the REDDOG squad – known to stand for Run Every Drug Dealer Out Of Georgia – during a previous stint in Atlanta, according to her official department biography. Davis did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2006, undercover officers with the hard-charging unit killed Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old Atlanta woman, and planted drugs in her home to justify the illegal raid, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in February 2009. Widespread civil rights abuses were eventually revealed, but the unit wasn’t disbanded until 2011, after Atlanta paid a settlement for another unjustified raid of a gay bar, the AJC reported in Feb. 2011.

Nonetheless, police and political leaders in both parties continue to create similar special units, with broad mandates and little oversight, and publicly defend their often-deadly tactics.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams revived a version of the former Street Crime Unit just last year, alongside a dubious 35-year-old strategy to reduce crime by forcefully committing the homeless and mentally ill. Adams' office did not respond to a request for comment.

Davis, who is Black, was a career cop and was “considered a rising star in the national police reform movement” when she was hired for the job, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported in April 2021.

Still, when Memphis recorded a record number of murders in 2021, the department’s reactionary answer was to revive the aggressive special units the chief had experience with in Atlanta – despite a dearth of evidence that those tactics actually reduce crime.

Now, after the death of another young Black man, we are watching a political response just as disturbingly familiar as the circumstances of Nichols’ death itself.

The Fraternal Order of Police is sorting apples once again, making sure to distinguish the country’s 800,000 officers from all the bad ones present at the scene of Nichols’ killing.

Republicans continue to resist any manner of substantive reform. House Judiciary Chair Jim Jordan said on Jan. 29 that he’s unsure “if there’s anything you can do,” describing police brutality as an act of “evil”.

Meanwhile, Democrats are trying to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which includes a number of the same proposals Memphis adopted before its officers killed Nichols, again.

At Nichols’ funeral, Vice President Kamala Harris called on Congress to enact the bill. “We will not be denied, it is non-negotiable,” Harris said. By then, President Joe Biden had already conceded that the White House “can only do so much."

It’s clear that, sooner or later, there will be another Tyre Nichols. Yet it remains much less clear whether anything else will be different, other than the names of the victim and his family.

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Hassan Kanu writes about access to justice, race, and equality under law. Kanu, who was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, worked in public interest law after graduating from Duke University School of Law. After that, he spent five years reporting on mostly employment law. He lives in Washington, D.C. Reach Kanu at hassan.kanu@thomsonreuters.com