For many familiar with the ebb and flow of policing in the United States, the brutal beating of Tyre Nichols by five police officers in Memphis after a routine traffic stop last month was reminiscent of tactics used in the 1990s era of gang warfare and crack cocaine, when special crime-fighting units, acting with bravado and impunity, were unleashed in high-crime neighborhoods.
Atlanta’s infamous Red Dog unit was responsible for a series of scandals, including the shooting death of a 92-year-old grandmother in a botched raid, before it was shut down in 2011. Elite police units were involved in some of the most notorious episodes of police misconduct in the 20th century, from the brutalizing of Amadou Diallo in New York to the Rampart Division scandal in Los Angeles, when officers stole drugs and money, beat suspects and even pulled off a bank robbery.
In more recent times, though, in the age of Black Lives Matter and high-profile police killings that provoked nationwide protests, policing began to center on the mantra of reform and accountability. Some of the elite units were disbanded, or ordered to operate less aggressively. The murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis in 2020 led to nationwide protests and calls for defunding the police.
But the last two years have seen yet another significant shift in policing in many American cities, experts say, as the calls for reform and accountability have given way to demands for aggressively confronting a new nationwide rise in violent crime.
Cities like Memphis are once again commissioning specialized crime-fighting units to tackle the spikes in crime that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic, a strategy that has had some success in bringing down homicides, thefts and other crime in targeted neighborhoods but that risks returning, critics say, to the problems of the past.
The Scorpion unit in Memphis, five of whose officers are now charged with murder in Mr. Nichols’s death, quickly developed a reputation for pretextual traffic stops and aggressive treatment of detainees after launching in November 2021, and the department announced last month that it was disbanding the unit.
The new or revamped units in Denver, New York, Atlanta, Portland and elsewhere are a reflection of how much has changed since the racial justice protests of 2020.
“When we have tragedies like Michael Brown and George Floyd, it’s all about justice and fairness and people’s lives matter and we’re here to protect and serve and we’re going to get this right,” said Shean Williams, a civil rights lawyer in Atlanta who represented the family of Kathryn Johnston, the grandmother who was killed in 2006 by agents of the Red Dog unit.
But as violent crime rose in 2020 and 2021, he said, the mind-set changed: “Now we’ve got to show the numbers.”
In 2020, about three weeks after George Floyd’ death, New York’s police commissioner at the time, Dermot F. Shea, announced the disbanding of the department’s anti-crime units, plainclothes teams that had been involved in numerous police killings, including the death of Eric Garner in 2014.
Mr. Shea described the move as “a seismic shift in the culture of how N.Y.P.D. polices this great city.” A year ago, facing rising crime rates, Mayor Eric Adams announced he was restoring a version of the units, declaring, “we will not surrender our city to the violent few.”
In Chicago, the police department has launched and quashed several specialized units over the years, either as a result of scandal or because they created tensions with their aggressive tactics. The most recent units — the Community Safety Team and the Critical Incident Response Team — launched in 2020 and are still in operation, although the department declined to answer questions about their size or mission.
At the time the new teams were announced, the Chicago police superintendent, David Brown, made a point of differentiating the new units from those of the past, saying they were not “a roving strike force like what C.P.D. has had,” according to The Chicago Tribune. The city’s most notorious unit, the Special Operations Section, or S.O.S., was disbanded in 2007 after several officers were convicted of an array of offenses, including theft, federal civil rights violations and, in one instance, seeking to have a fellow officer murdered.
Anthony Driver Jr., president of the city’s civilian police oversight board, said his group had questions about the units even before Mr. Nichols’s death in Memphis, and is pressing for more information.
“We have concerns and we need answers,” he said.
Atlanta’s renewed use of specialized units — which have operated under the names Apex and Titan — has come under scrutiny in the wake of Mr. Nichols’s death because Cerelyn Davis, the Memphis police chief, once worked in Atlanta and oversaw the Red Dog unit, which was blamed for a series of policing abuses, including the killing of Ms. Johnston, for which three officers were sentenced to prison.
“If anybody in the Memphis government would have reached out to Atlanta, we would have told you that Red Dog is not a good idea,” said Gerald Griggs, the president of Georgia’s chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
The new or rebranded units are sometimes variations of a strategy known as “hot spot” policing, a tactic that has been shown to produce small but measurable reductions in crime. Denver, for example, saw a reduction in homicides and shootings in three of the five “hot spots” targeted by new police units last year, when the city saw an overall reduction in homicides of 15 percent.
Unlike the Memphis Scorpion team, the “impact teams” in Denver work closely with community groups and regular patrol teams, said Doug Schepman, a Police Department spokesman.
The number of homicides in Memphis dropped the year after the Scorpion unit was launched, to 302 in 2022 from 346 in 2021, according to the Police Department. In early January, Chief Davis credited the drop to several factors, including the department’s focus on tracking down violent fugitives, the visibility of police in high-crime areas and wraparound services in the community. It remained unclear how much the Scorpion unit factored in.
The ability of such teams to produce major and long-lasting reductions in crime has not been shown, many crime experts said. The steep decline in crime across the country that began in the 1990s, some studies have shown, was attributable less to the “stop and frisk” policing and vehicle stops that accompanied some of the earlier hot-spot strategies and more to large overall increases in police staffing, greater rates of incarceration and the end of the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s.
Some of the cities bringing back specialized police teams say they will be able to avoid the mistakes of the past with strict controls, better training and stronger oversight.
Portland, Ore., disbanded its Gun Violence Reduction Team that had long been accused of over-policing Black neighborhoods, but as the city’s homicide numbers rose toward record levels in 2021, a new unit was formed: the Focused Intervention Team. This time, though, it was developed with a community oversight group devoted exclusively to the intervention team.
“We get the opportunity to weigh in on what they are doing, what they have done and how they go about doing their work,” said Ed Williams, a pastor who chairs the group. He said there have been some disagreements, with officers wanting to pursue hunches, while the oversight panel has wanted them to focus on using data and actionable information to decide which neighborhoods they work in and whom they decide to stop.
“They were feeling that we were holding them back,” Mr. Williams said. “And to some extent, we were.”
In Aurora, Colo., the interim police chief, Art Acevedo, said he recently called in the Direct Action Response Team that the city re-established last year to tackle rising gun violence and a surge in auto thefts. In the wake of what happened in Memphis, he said, he wanted his officers to know it was crucial to remember that “the rule of law matters” and that officers should not “stop and frisk everything that moves.”
In an interview, Mr. Acevedo touted the success so far of the new units, which were re-engaged last summer — 18 guns recovered, 81 felony arrests and no citizen complaints. But it has not been enough — at least not yet — to put a dent in the city’s overall violent crime picture. While the pandemic surge in violent crime eased last year for many American cities, Aurora experienced increases in homicides and aggravated assaults.
Some people in the community have said they are worried that there will inevitably be potential harm to Black and Latino residents with this type of policing — if not yet, soon.
Many activists in Atlanta say that the specialized police units, whatever they are called, remain synonymous with aggression and intimidation.
The Rev. Dr. Monte Norwood, a pastor at Bible Way Ministries on Atlanta’s south side, said there were multiple police officers in his congregation, “and they’re treated like family.”
Still, in the two-plus years since Atlanta police officers shot dead 27-year-old Rayshard Brooks during a traffic stop at a Wendy’s restaurant down the street from his church, and in the immediate wake of Mr. Nichols’s death in Memphis, Mr. Norwood has watched the relationship between his community and law enforcement become increasingly fragile.
Apex officers donning military garb and toting high-powered weapons do not help, he said. “It makes me afraid; it makes me wary.” Officers’ menacing equipment, Mr. Norwood said, emboldens them to prey on poor Black and brown communities, like his.
Clark White, an activist with the Atlanta Community Press Collective, said he could not shake the memory of an Apex officer manhandling the mother of a Black man accused of marijuana possession in a video that went viral.
“When police came out with Apex, they said it would be a departure from the violent nature of Red Dog,” he said. “But they’re still engaging in these same tactics.”
Barry Friedman, the director of the Policing Project at New York University School of Law, said the “hot spot” strategy can be effective, so long as it is a temporary presence in a neighborhood, and that the officers do not resort to aggressive “proactive policing” that can feel like racial profiling.
But that often happens, as officers in these units lean on a longstanding police tactic that studies have shown is rife with racial disparities, and has often led to deadly encounters: relying on traffic stops for minor infractions like expired tags or a busted taillight, in hopes of finding guns or drugs, or a driver with an outstanding warrant.
While some cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco have moved to curtail vehicle stops, other cities have maintained the practice — especially in recent years after an uproar over racist “stop-and-frisk” policies and a judge’s ruling that New York’s use of the policy was unconstitutional.
“What police departments did in some jurisdictions is trade auto stops for street stops,” Mr. Friedman said. “It’s hard to conduct the street stops because you need reasonable suspicion of a criminal offense. But with traffic stops, so many of the traffic laws are very minor traffic offenses that you can stop people on pretexts all the time.”
Part of the reason specialized units have made a return, Mr. Friedman said, “is that I don’t know that many police departments actually have any other idea of what to do about serious crime, violent crime.”
Reporting was contributed by Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Mike Baker, Steve Eder, Joseph Goldstein, Sean Keenan and Kelley Manley.