Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, chief of police in Memphis, won praise for her immediate response to the Tyre Nichols beating death. Amid criticism, she and the city shuttered the SCORPION unit, created as one of her first acts as Memphis’s new police chief in 2021, whose officers conducted the traffic stop and beating of Nichols.
Davis, of all people, should have understood how high-intensity, politically driven specialized policing units could go wrong. Davis ran Atlanta’s checkered REDDOG unit for about 18 months in 2006 and 2007, according to the resume she gave Durham, North Carolina, in 2016 before being named police chief there.
When asked, a Memphis Police Department spokesperson said that its SCORPION unit was modeled on Boston Police Department’s Operation Ceasefire, which — at least in design — is meant to be a very different system than what was on display in the Nichols video. But people in Atlanta who experienced REDDOG’s tactics recognized the similarity to the jarring video released last Friday of Nichols’s beating death.
Atlanta’s REDDOG, which stood for Run Every Drug Dealer Out of Georgia, predated Davis’s tenure in Atlanta by a decade. Still, Atlanta created it in 1988 under very similar political conditions to those in Memphis today. At the time, Atlanta was setting national homicide records, even as the city was preparing for the Democratic National Convention. Then-Mayor Andrew Young faced massive political pressure to show action against street crime.
REDDOG met violence with a roving wave of violence of its own. For 23 years, REDDOG officers regularly terrorized poor Black neighborhoods and Black residents of Atlanta.
Emery Carter was a 27-year-old military veteran in 1998 when two Atlanta REDDOG cops barreled into him while chasing someone else. “The REDDOGs blamed me for letting him get 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?’ This became a regular thing. Who are you going to tell? You can’t call the police on the police.”
Terrick Young was a homeless 15-year-old on Cleveland Avenue at the same time Carter was on Jonesboro Road, both in impoverished parts of South Atlanta. Rather than help him find shelter, cops from the unit found him with marijuana, beat him, and took $150 away from him, leaving him to find his way to a hospital to get stitches. The incident — and other run-ins with REDDOG — left him with permanent physical and emotional scars.
“This was the odd thing about REDDOGs, man. They didn’t arrest most people,” Young said. “They mostly just robbed you and beat you up and let you go. A lot of people don’t know that. I guess they didn’t want to do paperwork or whatever.”
There is no shortage of stories about REDDOG’s conduct. Outkast, T.I., Young Dro, Killer Mike, and dozens of other rappers have referenced run-ins with REDDOG over the years. Atlanta’s immortal rap group Goodie Mob titled a song “Dirty South” on their 1995 album “Soul Food.” “One to da two da three da four/ Dem dirty REDDOGS done hit the door / And they got everybody on they hands and knees / And they ain’t gonna leave until they find them keys.”
Atlanta disbanded the unit in 2011 in the wake of a police raid on an LGBTQ night club where patrons were made to kneel in broken glass and subjected to racist and homophobic abuse. REDDOG joined a growing list of specialized policing units like CRASH of the Rampart scandal in Los Angeles and the Gun Trace Task Force in Baltimore, shuttered after wide-ranging corruption and misconduct.
Davis, the current Memphis police chief, served with the Atlanta Police Department for 16 years and commanded the REDDOG unit between June 2006 and November 2007. (Notably, REDDOG was not responsible for the infamous Kathryn Johnston shooting of 2007.) She left Atlanta to run Durham’s police department until 2021.
Like most American cities, Durham’s violent crime rate spiked during the pandemic. City leaders faced calls to do something quickly, said former Mayor Steve Schewel. But the city had also long been committed to reform, even before the George Floyd protests of 2020 threw criminal justice issues into sharp relief, he said.
“We have a big, politically vigorous democracy here,” Schewel said. “People were in the streets. She kept the police away from demonstrations. I give her really high marks for that.”
Davis had embraced reforms, like a requirement for police to obtain written consent before searching a car and pushing cases into the misdemeanor first-offender programs in court, Schewel said. “She walked the line between having the confidence of the community and having the confidence of the police department.”
Durham lost Davis to a bigger job. When she 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 homicides, a rate of about 48 per 100,000 residents.
Memphis’s political leadership sounded much like Durham’s: desperate to keep shootings, like the murder of the rapper Young Dolph, from defining the city’s culture, but looking for long-term solutions to the underlying causes of crime.
“There is no quick fix,” Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland said at the “State of the City” address in January 2022. “Unfortunately, the actions we take today don’t mean the crime problems will go away tomorrow.”
In that address, Strickland touted arrests and seizures made by the city’s new SCORPION unit, noting that “we must remove from our streets those predators who perpetrate violence and use guns to harm and rob others.”
Communities implement a Ceasefire-style program — as the SCORPION unit was meant to be — to reduce gun violence, particularly youth gun violence.
That kind of program begins with intense data analysis to isolate the fraction of a percent of a community who tend to be responsible for most of its violence. Police then contact those at highest risk for committing an act of gun violence to tell them that they’re being observed. They’re offered a choice: an off-ramp from their gang activities with enhanced resources as part of the program, or intense prosecution by the system if they shoot someone.
Nothing of this approach — rigorous targeted intervention with available resources — had anything at all to do with Tyre Nichols, except perhaps that he was a young Black man in a Memphis crime hot spot that the model had decided merited intense policing.