Tyre Nichols carries echoes of the beating Atlanta REDDOG unit

Cerilyn “CJ” Davis, Memphis’ police chief, Tyree, won praise for his quick response to Nichols’ death. Amid the criticism, he and the city shut down the SCORPION unit, created as one of his first acts as Memphis’ new police chief in 2021, whose officers handled traffic stops and beatings of Nichols.

Davis, of all people, should have understood how high-intensity, politically driven specialized police units could go wrong. Davis ran Atlanta’s Checkered REDDOG unit for about 18 months in 2006 and 2007, before being named police chief there in 2016, according to a resume he provided to Durham, North Carolina.

When asked, a spokesperson for the Memphis Police Department said its SCORPION unit was based on the Boston Police Department’s Operation Ceasefire, which — at least in design — is meant to be a very different system than what was shown in the Nichols video. But people in Atlanta who have experienced REDDOG’s tactics recognize the similarities to the damning video released last Friday of Nichols’ beating death.

Atlanta’s REDDOG, which stands for running every drug dealer outside of Georgia, preceded Davis’ tenure in Atlanta a decade ago. Still, Atlanta in 1988 made it into a political situation similar to Memphis today. At the time, Atlanta was setting a national homicide record, even as the city was preparing for the Democratic National Convention. Then-mayor Andrew Young faced massive political pressure to crack down on street crime.

REDDOG met the violence with its own swirling wave of violence. For 23 years, REDDOG officers routinely terrorized poor black neighborhoods and black residents of Atlanta.

Emery Carter was a 27-year-old military veteran in 1998 when Atlanta RedDog police stopped him while chasing someone else. “The Reddogs blamed me for pushing him away, so they took me to the park, beat me up and let me go,” he said. “They say, ‘Do you want to go to jail, or do you want us to beat you up and take your money?’ It became a regular thing. Who are you going to tell? You can’t call the police the police.”

Terrick Young was a homeless 15-year-old on Cleveland Avenue at the same time Carter was on Jonesboro Road in a poor part of South Atlanta. Instead of helping him find shelter, the unit’s cops found him with marijuana, beat him up and took $150 from him, finding his way to the hospital to get stitches. The incident — and other run-ins with REDDOG — left him with permanent physical and emotional scars.

“That was the weird thing about Reddog, man. They didn’t arrest most people,” Young said. “They mostly robbed you and beat you and let you go. Many people do not know this. I guess they don’t want to do paperwork or whatever.”

There is no shortage of stories about REDDOG behavior. Outkast, TI, Young Drew, Killer Mike and dozens of other rappers have mentioned run-ins with REDDOG over the years. Immortal Atlanta rap group Goody Mob featured a song titled “Dirty South” on their 1995 album “Soul Food”. “One to da two da three da four / Dem dirty reddogs hit the door / And they got everybody on their hands and knees / And they ain’t go till they get the key.”

Atlanta disbanded the unit in 2011 In the wake of a police raid on an LGBTQ nightclub where patrons had to kneel amid broken glass and were subjected to racist and homophobic abuse. REDDOG joins a growing list of special policing units, such as the Crash of the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles and the Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore, which have been shut down after rampant corruption and misconduct.

Davis, the current Memphis Police Chief, served 16 years with the Atlanta Police Department and led the REDDOG Unit between June 2006 and November 2007. (Notably, REDDOG was not responsible for the infamous 2007 shooting of Katherine Johnston.) He left Atlanta to run the Durham Police Department until 2021.

Like most American cities, Durham’s violent crime rate has risen during the pandemic. City leaders are facing calls to do something fast, former Mayor Steve Shevell said. But the city had long been committed to reform, even before the 2020 George Floyd protests threw criminal justice issues into sharp relief, he said.

“We have a big, politically strong democracy here,” Shevell said. “People were on the streets. He kept the police away from the protests. I give him really high marks for that.”

Davis adopted reforms, such as requiring police to obtain written consent before searching a vehicle and pushing cases into the first-offender program in court, Shewell said. “He walked the line between having the trust of the community and having the trust of the police department.”

Durham lost Davis a big job. When he arrived in Memphis, the city was wrestling with the highest homicide rate among America’s largest cities, driven by youth street crime. Memphis broke its record in 2021, with 346 murders, a rate of about 48 per 100,000 residents.

Memphis’ political leadership sounded a lot like Durham: desperate for a shooting like the murder of rapper Young Dolph from defining the city’s culture, but looking for long-term solutions to the underlying causes of crime.

“There are no quick fixes,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said in a January 2022 “State of the City” address. “Unfortunately, the steps we take today do not mean that tomorrow’s crime problems will go away.”

In that address, Strickland touted arrests and detentions by the city’s new SCORPION unit, noting that “we must remove from our streets those predators who commit violence and use guns to harm and rob others.”

Communities implement a Ceasefire-style program to reduce gun violence, especially youth gun violence — as the SCORPION unit was instructed.

This type of program begins with intense data analysis to isolate the fraction of one percent of a community who are responsible for most of the violence. Police then contact those at highest risk for committing acts of gun violence to tell them they are being monitored. They are offered a choice: an off-ramp from their gang activity with increased resources as part of the program, or harsher prosecution by the system if they shoot someone.

None of this approach — tightly targeted intervention with available resources — had anything to do with Tyre Nichols, perhaps because he was a young black man in a crime hot spot in Memphis who decided to model meritorious intense policing.