Scorpions, cobras and vipers: What's in a name of a US special police unit?

Memphis Police Department officers attend a roll call briefing of the department's SCORPION unit in 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - The aggressive and discriminatory tactics of some specialised policing units are getting renewed attention since the killing of Mr Tyre Nichols in January by officers in Memphis’ now-disbanded Scorpion unit.

The United States Department of Justice is currently examining how jurisdictions use those units and is planning to produce a guide to help officials assess their appropriateness.

The sheriff of Fulton County, Georgia, took a minor, proactive step in January to address some concerns, announcing that he is considering renaming his own agency’s Scorpion Unit – given that the Memphis officers “have cast dishonour and suspicion” on the name, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper reported.

Memphis’ Scorpion stood for Street Crimes Operation to Restore Peace in our Neighbourhoods. The Fulton unit is apparently not an acronym.

But there is little doubt that many people regarded the units and their menacing names suspiciously well before seeing video of Memphis’ Scorpion officers taking turns beating Mr Nichols to death.

After all, “scorpion” refers to a widely feared, deadly predator, and does not evoke anything at all to do with safety, protection or community service.

And that is just one example.

Many specialised units and task forces across the country use similar names – names that obviously intimidate, invoke violence or convey a military-style assault.

Victor Hill, a former sheriff of Clayton County, Georgia, who was recently convicted of civil rights violations and sentenced to 18 months in prison, also launched a specialised Scorpion team.

In addition, Hill had the Black Hawk Traffic Enforcement Unit – named after the military assault aircraft, and a “crime-fighting” unit named Cobra, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Law enforcement in Evansville, Indiana, Cherokee County, Georgia, and Monroe County, Michigan, all have units named Viper.

The Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) had a Viper unit until it was rebranded in 2015 after several episodes of serious misconduct, according to the Justice Department’s recent investigation of LMPD.

There are also military-style names. Baltimore and Buffalo, New York, have deployed “Strike Forces” in “high-crime” neighbourhoods, for example.

So, then, the obvious question: Why the menacing names?

The simplest explanation may be the best: Special police units use violent, militaristic names to inspire fear in the communities where they are deployed, which are invariably made up of black, brown and poor people.

To terrorise, in other words.

The point is apparently to strike an acute fear of being brutalised, even killed, into the hearts of suspected criminals, as a deterrent against crime.

The fact that the flawed, overly aggressive strategies of these units can serve to produce a campaign of terror in minority communities seems largely irrelevant to many political and police leaders, because they believe that the fear itself is a “crime-fighting” tool.

Mr Larry James, general counsel for the National Fraternal Order of Police, said officials and officers are trying to come up with catchphrases “that will get folks’ attention – and part of that might be fear”.

The units can address patterns of specific violent crimes, but problems arise when there is a lack of training and supervision or when officers are given “carte blanche” to do their job “by any means necessary”, he said.

Concerns about specialised policing units are not new, nor is the aggressive posture conveyed by many of their names.

The architects of one of the most infamous units, Detroit’s Stress, made no bones about the matter, maybe because the public was much less opposed to racist police brutality in the 1970s.

In 1971, while Stress was facing the first protests from black communities, the co-commander of the nearly all-white unit commented to Newsweek that what was at stake was “whether we can effectively police the black community”, according to a report on Detroit’s policing history by the University of Michigan.

White radical organisations and mainstream civil rights groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People all eventually concluded that the “very objectives of Stress” was “a state-sponsored terror campaign”.

The creators also admitted as much: Co-commanders of the unit told a policing magazine in 1972 that the violence Stress encountered – the killing of 19 people, almost all black – was predictable, given their tactics, according to the University of Michigan report.

That history suggests the aggression and excessive force are often quite intentional – much like the names of some units are.

And similar dynamics persist more than a half-century later.

Baltimore’s more innocuously named Gun Trace Task Force, for example, produced one of the most shocking corruption scandals in the city’s history, according to a 2022 investigation of the unit.

Yet the unit’s leader and worst offender, Wayne Jenkins, was “protected and coddled” and held up as a role model for years “because of his productivity in seizing guns”, according to the investigation. Jenkins is currently serving a 25-year federal prison sentence.

In 2018, Buffalo disbanded its “strike force”.

An attorney who co-authored a study of the team noted that the city had taken a page from New York’s experience with special units in the 1990s, implementing “actual techniques that have been ruled unconstitutional” and “applying them with impunity top-down”.

The reasons why police select violent names for these teams are part of a misguided effort at deterrence, that also instils fear in the black and brown folks that many Americans perceive as inherently dangerous. REUTERS

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.