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DOJ issues new guide for specialized police units in the wake of Tyre Nichols' death

Protesters block traffic as they rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 27, 2023.
Seth Herald
AFP via Getty Images
Protesters block traffic as they rally against the fatal police assault of Tyre Nichols in Memphis, Tenn., on Jan. 27, 2023.

Updated January 10, 2024 at 3:53 PM ET

One year after Tyre Nichols died following a violent confrontation with a Memphis police unit known as Scorpion, the U.S. Justice Department is issuing new guidance to police to ensure more care and accountability in those specialized law enforcement teams.

In a report to be made public Wednesday, federal officials call for mayors and police chiefs to assess whether such specialized units are even necessary to solve community problems, to take care that members assigned to them have clean work and disciplinary histories, and to ensure that they're supervised properly.

"Our hope is that the guide is going to help law enforcement avoid the bad and sometimes very tragic outcomes we've seen from such units including what we saw happen a year ago," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta told NPR.

Specialized units in such places as Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C., have come under intense scrutiny over the years for terrorizing or targeting the communities they're supposed to serve. Some of their names alone--Scorpion, Wolfpack, and Crash--"emphasize and further separate the agency from the community and perpetuate the 'us versus them' mentality," the new guide said.

The DOJ guide, released by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, known as COPS, suggested that the units can serve a laudable purpose, from preventing auto thefts and street violence to arresting particularly violent suspects. But it adds that elected leaders and police chiefs should assess how long they need to operate, and perhaps set term limits based on community needs.

Gupta said she hopes the new report can help managers "ask themselves the right questions at the outset but also ensure that there's management and accountability in place."

"We shouldn't take things for granted," she added, noting that after Nichols died, many police officials nationwide began to evaluate their own operations and practices.

Nichols suffered a fatal injury in a violent confrontation with five members of the now-disbanded Scorpion unit in Memphis. One officer has since pleaded guilty in connection with the brutal incident. Four others face state and federal charges in trials set for later this year. They've pleaded not guilty.

Benjamin Crump and Antonio Romanucci, the legal team for Nichols, welcomed the new federal guidance from the Justice Department.

"We hope police departments and chiefs nationwide will strictly adhere to this guidance," Crump and Romanucci said in a written statement. "The unjustified death of Tyre Nichols and the circumstances surrounding that tragedy will not soon be forgotten. As we work to make this country a safer place for everyone, it is critical that we remember our history and learn from it."

The new guide is separate from anongoing review of Memphis police by the Justice Department's civil rights division, which is investigating a possible pattern or practice of excessive force and other problems there.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.
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