Memphis flex unit behind Tyre Nichols’ killing echoes Baltimore’s past and prompts questions about its present

The specialized Memphis police unit responsible for the killing of Tyre Nichols was swiftly disbanded a day after the release of footage showing members savagely beating the Black driver.

The department’s chief, who created the unit in 2021, said it was in the “best interest of all” to shut down SCORPION, which stood for Street Crimes Operations to Restore Peace in Our Neighborhoods — despite her earlier defense of its work.


The decision by Memphis Police Director Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has done little to tamp down national debate over about similar squads across the country that target violent offenders or guns by sending teams to “hot spot” neighborhoods, employing what critics say are overly aggressive tactics that damage community trust.

In Baltimore, so-called flex or plainclothes units have a history of controversy, which most recently exploded into public view with the federal indictments of eight Gun Trace Task Force officers in 2017. Plainclothes enforcement units were disbanded soon afterward, sending officers back to uniformed patrol.

A member of the Baltimore Police Department's Mobile Metro Unit writes a warning during a traffic stop.

Since then, new squads have formed — the Mobile Metro Unit and District Action Teams — designed for deployment to specific areas with proactive policing strategies, such as traffic enforcement or foot patrols.

In a city still grappling with fallout from the Gun Trace Task Force scandal — including a loss of community trust that hampers efforts to fight crime — some observers question how much the department has done to repair wounds, and whether these teams are just the latest reinvention of flex squads.

“The idea of creating flexible units, often regarded as ‘elite’ units, is pervasive across policing, and it happens all across the country,” said David Jaros, faculty director for the University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform.

“The devil really is in the details — what they’re encouraged to do, the degree to which they are carefully supervised and regulated, or whether or not they’re given the license to go out and just make aggressive arrests.”

Baltimore Police Department command staff previously acknowledged the new units may resemble the GTTF and other specialized squads of the past. But they insisted to investigators the department hired to probe the origins of the GTTF that special privileges were eliminated and new controls put in place. The department said in written responses to questions from The Baltimore Sun that the units also differ from the GTTF in their operations, training, selection process, supervision and oversight.

Though not originally formed as a “hot spot” enforcement unit, the GTTF transformed into one with wide latitude around seizing guns and drugs, with little supervision. Indicted officers admitted to stealing money from residents, lying on paperwork, falsifying evidence and collecting unearned overtime pay for years; six took plea deals and two were convicted at trial.

The task force was the latest iteration of a series of units within the department, the report looking into the scandal found. Squads were rebranded periodically under new police commissioners, but often retained a core group of officers and a focus on statistics-driven arrests or gun seizures, the report released last year said.

The department’s latest proactive units, Mobile Metro and District Action Teams, are similar to the GTTF and past specialized squads in that they are not designed to respond to calls for service and can serve in a “flex” capacity in areas where the department sees a need.


Focusing on lower-level offenses, like traffic stops, trespassing or drug possession, can fuel “negative and dangerous interactions,” warned Marguerite Lanaux, the district public defender for Baltimore. Tragedies such as the deaths of Nichols, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, she added, were the result of police “escalating an alleged minor offense into a violent encounter.”

“Simply changing the names of units allows police departments to deflect attention away from the dangerous and discriminatory practices employed by ‘hot spot’ policing units,” Lanaux wrote in an email.

Michael Bromwich, one of the authors of the GTTF report, told The Sun in an interview that there is a “justifiable burden” on the police department to demonstrate and describe the differences and safeguards in place to “make sure this is not just a reprise of what we saw before.”

“The sins of the GTTF weren’t committed under [Police Commissioner Michael] Harrison’s watch, but he inherited that history,” Bromwich said. “Like many other shortcomings in the department that he’s had to deal with, this is one of them.”

‘Old wine in new bottles’?

When attorney Joshua Insley, an attorney who represented numerous clients harmed by the actions of GTTF officers, learned a flex unit was behind Nichols’ death in Memphis, his reaction was: “It’s the same playbook.”

“What they’re doing is they’re creating proactive policing units to go out there and fight crime and be aggressive with criminals and all this other stuff,” Insley said. “Their incentive is not to make quality arrests. Their incentive is to fill the jails with ‘bad guys.’ So, they’re going to go out there and look for people who look like bad guys to them. It’s just a recipe for disaster.”


In addition to the criminal cases of GTTF officers themselves, the scandal led to the reversal of about 800 convictions that had relied on problematic officers’ word and, so far, more than $16 million in payouts by the city to plaintiffs wronged by the unit.

About a week after GTTF officers were indicted in 2017, then-Commissioner Kevin Davis told The Sun he was effectively ending plainclothes policing. But, as documented in the 2022 GTTF report, Davis didn’t intend to eliminate plainclothes policing entirely, and created District Action Teams as “specialized patrol.”

Some suggested to the GTTF report investigators that the teams were just “old wine in new bottles,” or a rebranding of existing district operations squads. Some of the indicted GTTF officers were recruited from such squads or began their criminal activity when they belonged to one, according to the report.

Former Deputy Commissioner Michael Sullivan, who worked under Harrison until June 2021, told investigators that the District Action Teams have a “superficial resemblance” to GTTF and other specialized squads because they don’t respond to calls for service. Sullivan said their actual role is closer to patrol officers than past enforcement squads.

In written responses to questions, the department described the roughly 42-person Mobile Metro Unit as a team sent to “hot spot areas” across the city for traffic enforcement and “additional visibility and stability” following homicides, shootings or robberies. (Unit members fired the shots that killed 18-year-old Donnell Rochester during an attempted arrest last February.)

District Action Teams, it said, take proactive measures, make “strategic arrests” and gather information about violent crime. The department’s latest staffing plan calls for two such teams in each of the nine police districts, for a total of about 108 officers and 18 sergeants citywide.


Both units’ members wear “modified” uniforms with “POLICE” labeled on their outer vests.

The department said it monitors the actions of both units and develops weekly and quarterly plans. Success is measured by a comparison of unit outputs and crime; decreases in community complaints or increases in cooperation; arrests of “crime drivers” or drug trafficking groups; and fewer “arrests” resulting in a releases “without charges.”

Jaleyah Morton, a Morgan State University sophomore who helped organize a protest of the death of Donnell Rochester, holds up a shirt with the names of Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, Ahmaud Abrery and George Floyd outside City Hall.

“While it can be difficult to correlate officer proactivity and visibility to what crimes [have] been prevented, we have seen that when these units are deployed, they have an impact on crime suppression and calming for the community,” Baltimore Police spokesperson Lindsey Eldridge said.

Bromwich said leaders appeared, as of late 2021, to have “taken the lessons of GTTF going off the rails seriously” in forming the new units — “well aware of the perils of a not carefully vetted, not closely supervised group of officers and front-line supervisors.”

His proposed safeguards for the department, to minimize the risk of corruption or misconduct in specialized units, include: being careful about the people selected for the unit, reviewing disciplinary histories, ensuring good supervision, creating specialized training and establishing “true” accountability, beyond metrics like arrests or seizures: Is the unit producing convictions?

“That was one of the real gaps with the GTTF: Lots of seizures, lots of arrests, very few convictions,” he said. “That should have been tracked and questions should have been asked and satisfactorily answered. And they never were.”


‘A critical and vulnerable moment’

Jaros and Heather Warnken, executive director of University of Baltimore’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, see the city at “a critical and vulnerable moment.”

Persistently high levels of violence, including eight years with more than 300 homicides, has increased pressure on police and elected officials. Some conversations, such as the consent decree hearings presided over by U.S. District Judge James K. Bredar, have focused more on the recruiting and resources than the importance of building relationships with community, they said.

Baltimore, like cities elsewhere, has looked to proactive policing or flex squads “in the name of public safety,” Warnken said. But such steps can undermine community relationships and public safety — particularly as the potential for increased power, diminished supervision and reduced transparency in such units can “get exploited and wielded to inflict harm,” she said.

In the GTTF case, “unrelenting violence” served as “both a distraction and a cover,” Warnken said. She stressed the importance of remaining connected with communities to understand how they are being policed.

“The stakes just keep going up, and it keeps being more and more important to have meaningful, participatory community voice to keep holding accountable not just BPD, but the people who are supposed to be holding BPD accountable,” Warnken said.

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Lanaux, too, warned that policing initiatives focused on minor offenses don’t result in improved public safety.


“It overwhelms the court system and reduces the resources available for serious safety issues,” Lanaux said.

The GTTF report’s authors similarly described a “pendulum” swing in building and dismantling flex or plainclothes units. In Baltimore, the department’s work “shrunk dramatically” following the GTTF scandal. But the report cautioned that has happened before in the aftermath of scandal, and there is often a swing “back in the direction of replenishing” units.

Violent crime creates political issues for police chiefs and elected officials, Bromwich said. Creating such specialized units, in response, can be an “irresistible” lure. They can then point to the units’ production and say, “We did this,” he said, even if it’s arrests or stops being measured, not convictions.

“Going this route is fraught with peril, which is not to say it should never be done. I think, if you’re realistic, it will be done,” Bromwich said.

But having sufficient awareness of the risks, learning from the histories of “specialized units gone bad” and building in safeguards is essential.

“It’s like anything else,” he said. “If you don’t know the history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”