Amid Criticism, Elite Crime Teams Dwindled. Then Cities Brought Them Back.

A friend visited a makeshift memorial in Memphis for Tyre Nichols, who was brutally beaten by police officers in January.Credit…Desiree Rios/The New York Times

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 [Black] neighborhoods.

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….

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.

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.

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