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Do special police units deter crime or lead to more prosecutions and convictions?


In Memphis, two more police officers have been suspended as city officials continue to investigate the death of Tyre Nichols. Last week, the five officers who were seen on video brutally beating Nichols were fired and charged with murder. They were part of a now disbanded special unit dedicated to cracking down on street crime. For more on the tactics and culture behind these special units, I'm joined now by Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and author of the book "Chokehold: Policing Black Men." Professor, is there any evidence to suggest that these special units actually deter crime or maybe lead to more prosecutions and convictions?

PAUL BUTLER: The evidence is quite mixed. If the units actually made communities safer, maybe their rough tactics would be acceptable to some people. But we know that people in the community sometimes experience this policing as a violent occupation, and that actually undermines law enforcement. When a crime goes down in the hood, people know who did it. The way that officers make cases isn't mainly chasing down bad guys. It's kind of like what you see on "Law & Order." The cops sit in people's kitchens and workplaces, talking. And if your experience with the police is that they're the ones who pulled you over for no reason or pushed your grandbaby against the wall, you don't want to talk to them.

MARTÍNEZ: So are there ways, then, to make these special units work? Would just talking to people more than roughing them up work better?

BUTLER: There are best practices for these units. The officers should be highly experienced and carefully selected, not based on their aggression or number of arrests made, but for their ability to work with the communities they're supposed to serve and protect. And when a squad is making an arrest, there should be one commanding officer, and she should be the only person giving orders. And all of that's the opposite of what happened to Mr. Nichols. He was given confusing, contradictory commands - lie on the ground, when he was already lying on the ground; show us your hands, when officers were restraining his hands. What the cops seem to have been doing is creating a narrative for the video to try to justify their violence.

MARTÍNEZ: So, professor, if there's no real evidence to know that these special units make neighborhoods safer, I mean, what type of policing would?

BUTLER: So President Biden called this case a test of whether we are the country we say we are. At this moment, we're the country where an American citizen, guilty of no more than a traffic violation, was tortured and killed on public streets by agents of the government. The problem is larger than bad apple cops. The problem is too entrenched to be solved by reform. The violent policing that occurs in communities of color is inconsistent with public safety. It's not consistent with equal justice under the law. So, A, I think if we're the country we say we are - our American spirit of innovation, our Black genius - but we have to use those tools to reimagine community well-being from the ground up.

MARTÍNEZ: Another thing, professor. We rarely see police officers fired in these kinds of situations. These five were charged very, very quickly. What was different this time around?

BUTLER: So what was different is that the Movement for Black Lives has educated the country about police violence that people of color have complained about a long time. Now prosecutors understand that. The public understands that. So it's easier for prosecutors to win these cases. Of course, the other difference is that these officers were African American. And some people say that makes these charges easier because in every aspect of the criminal justice system, Black people are treated differently. Last comment - if these officers weren't in badges and uniforms, on another day, these young Black men might have met the same fate as Mr. Nichols.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Paul Butler, law professor at Georgetown University. Thank you.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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