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How special police units like Scorpion work


The Memphis Police Department now says a sixth officer was relieved of duty after the death of Tyre Nichols earlier this month. Officers badly beat Nichols after a traffic stop as shown in videos released to the public on Friday. Five other officers have already been fired and have been charged with second degree murder. And those five were part of a special unit dedicated to something called hot spot policing. We've asked our law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste to talk about what that is and why it's done. Hi, Martin.


SUMMERS: So first, when we say hot spots as in hot spot policing, just tell us what we're talking about here.

KASTE: Well, this is an insight that's come from work that's been done by criminologists who think that good policing depends on first understanding the patterns of crime. Where does crime happen? I talked to one of the researchers this morning who do this kind of work, David Weisburd. He's a distinguished professor at George Mason University, and he runs the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy. This hot spot concept comes partly out of work that he's been doing for three decades.

DAVID WEISBURD: I started out in Seattle and found over 16 years that about 5% of the streets produced 50% of crime, 1%, about 25%. Then I went to New York City - the same results, etc. and etc. And I think that the underlying science here is that crime is very concentrated at specific micro places in cities.

SUMMERS: So then once we understand that crime can be concentrated in very small parts of neighborhoods in this way, what do experts say that police should do about it?

KASTE: Well, I'd say most big city police departments have tried some form of hotspot policing, but that label means really different things in different places. Some departments simply make more officers visible in hotspots, more presence, more patrols. There's another approach called problem-oriented policing, where officers go to those places and work with the neighborhood to identify the biggest sources of crime and try to find solutions.

SUMMERS: And so then what did this look like in the city of Memphis?

KASTE: Well, Memphis seemed to be using an approach that we've seen in some big cities with intense violent crime where they create a specialized unit - sometimes with modified uniforms or plainclothes, sometimes unmarked cars. And they're told to target certain things - illegal guns, drug dealing or even reckless driving. The thing about these special units, though, is they can sometimes develop a reputation for being more aggressive than the rest of the department. I should point out that this unit in Memphis went by the acronym SCORPION. I should say went by that name because Memphis has now disbanded it.

SUMMERS: And the researchers that you've spoken with - have they draw any conclusions about whether hot spot policing is actually effective?

KASTE: Generally speaking, hot spot policing does reduce crime, they say. The research says it even lowers crime in other nearby areas that don't get that extra attention. But crime rates aren't the only measure of success because you also have to look at whether hotspot policing is hurting the legitimacy of the police in that community. And I talked about this with Scott Wolfe. He's an associate professor in criminal justice at Michigan State University.

SCOTT WOLFE: Unmarked, sometimes even plainclothes officers that jump out on street corners - those tend to not go well. They're dangerous for officers. They're dangerous for citizens. And what we especially now know nowadays is from a public relations standpoint, that's the last thing you should probably be doing.

SUMMERS: So what do these researchers say the solution is? I mean, is there a way to engage in hot spot policing without alienating the people that live in these communities that these officers are serving?

KASTE: They have been doing some research in that, field experiments. David Weisburd and other researchers - they published a study just last year in which they went to three cities that already have hotspot policing - Tucson, Houston and Cambridge. And they trained some of the hot spot officers to be more respectful.

SUMMERS: OK. And how does that work?

KASTE: Well, they're talking about an approach that's generally called procedural justice in which cops are taught to be really clear about what they're doing, why they're doing it, show that they're listening and show that they're being fair even when arresting someone. The study showed that residents in the areas where the officers were trained that way were more satisfied with the police, that the police there arrested fewer people and crime was actually lower. And Weisburd says that part - the lower crime - was surprising.

WEISBURD: Some people might argue the tougher guys, the guys that aren't being respectful and treating people well, etc., would do better in terms of crime. We found there was a 14% decline - relative decline in crime in the procedural justice-conditioned hotspot.

SUMMERS: That begs the question, I guess, why don't all police departments do hot spot policing that way?

KASTE: Well, money is always a factor here. This kind of training is not cheap. In this case, it took four or five days of training. During that time, those officers are not working. They have to be covered by other officers. It probably - it's the kind of training that needs to be updated every few years or so. But Weisburd says even with that high price, you have to - you know, if you're creating specialized units that have their own kind of internal mentality, they probably - that's probably money well spent.

SUMMERS: NPR's Martin Kaste. Martin, thank you.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.