'Unabashedly criminals': Specialized police teams in NC under scrutiny following Tyre Nichols' death

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BySamantha Kummerer WTVD logo
Monday, January 30, 2023
Specialized police teams under scrutiny following Tyre Nichols' death
Specialized police units, like the one at the center of the investigation into Tyre Nichols' death, exist all across the country, including in central North Carolina.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Specialized police units, like the one at the center of the investigation into Tyre Nichols' death, exist all across the country, including in central North Carolina.

The Memphis police officers involved with allegedly fatally beating Tyre Nichols were part of a specialized police unit called SCORPION. The team was created in November 2021 to tackle violent crimes like auto thefts, gang-related crimes and drug-related crimes.

The unit is now disbanded as criminal justice advocates and residents come forward to accuse officers in the unit of using excessive force.

MORE: Memphis police release video of Tyre Nichols traffic stop

The Tyre Nichols video was released by Memphis police Friday showing the brutal beating on bodycam footage.

"I was very shocked to see that level of assault," said Chief Blair Myhand, the president of the NC Association of Chiefs of Police. "One thing that struck me was that I didn't see a single police officer in the video. And what I mean by that is that those individuals were acting like a street gang that wore badges; they were unabashedly criminals."

The news calls into question the role and effectiveness of these units across the nation.

"I think locally we need to really, really need to evaluate our investment in these specialized teams. They oftentimes require a lot of highly specialized equipment that costs a lot of money. Is the risk worth the reward?" questioned Kristie Puckett Williams with the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina.

ABC11 reached out to local agencies in the Triangle.

Chapel Hill, Cary, Garner, and Fuquay-Varina police departments all said they do not have specialized units.

WATCH: Tyre Nichols' mom describes hearing son cry out for her

RowVaughn Wells, the mother of Tyre Nichols, described hearing her son cry out for her while he was beaten by Memphis police.

Cumberland County Sheriff's Office said it has many specialty units but none model the SCORPION unit.

Raleigh, Durham and Fayetteville police departments did not answer ABC11's question.

Durham County Sheriff's Office said it has two units. One unit is SCOPE (the Sheriff's Community Oriented Policing Effort) and STRIKE, a cross-agency collaboration to target violent crimes.

DCSO said last year the STRIKE group made 145 arrests, seizing 66 guns and more than 6,000 grams of drugs.

Law enforcement and criminal justice advocates that ABC11 spoke with said the effectiveness of these units needs to be transparently evaluated.

"I think clear direction on what the purpose of the unit is also very important," Myhand said. "There has to be some sort of measurable metrics by which an agency could determine, 'Is this unit being effective? Do we need to put more resources on it? Do we need to reallocate this into some other need within the agency?'"

SEE ALSO: Officials push for Tyre's Law in wake of fatal police beating

The five disgraced former Memphis Police Department officers, who are also Black, have been fired and charged with murder and other crimes in Nichols' death three days after the ar

He said he would like to see more agencies become forthcoming with their data and actions within departments.

Myhand doesn't believe every specialized unit is bad but he said proper leadership, oversight and transparency are vital.

"I think they're a great tool," he said. "If they're not managed properly, you know, things can go wrong. Not that they will in every single case, but I think a lot of people would recognize that there was no leadership on the scene in Memphis that night."

A lot of the criticism that surrounds these teams is related to their tendency to have a hyper-focus on militarization tactics.

"When you talk about the police that comes out that is really militarized, that's generally those special teams," Puckett Williams said. "All police have access to militarized equipment, but those specialized teams are the ones in the tanks and the big, big, big guns, you know, all that military-grade equipment."

Equipment and tactics come with a hefty price tag at times.

"If the investment into policing into these specialized teams has not resulted in a lessening of crime in our communities, then why are we still investing our time and our energy into things that just have proven to not work?" Puckett Williams questioned.

She said these violent incidents and excessive use of force are not isolated to specialized teams. While disbanding the SCORPION team won't resolve these issues, she does believe it is a start.

"These small incremental changes give us the time to evaluate whether we are on the right path and to adjust if necessary," Puckett Williams said. "So I'm OK with the small changes happening and the reason I'm OK because I believe that those small changes are more sustainable than large sweeping changes."