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Rep. Cecil Thomas: Tyre Nichols' death shows need for accountability, uniform standards across all agencies

Former officer turned state lawmaker: Memphis police unit tied to Nichols' death similar to old CPD unit
APTOPIX Memphis Police Force Investigation
Posted at 12:09 AM, Jan 31, 2023

CINCINNATI — A former Cincinnati police officer turned state lawmaker said Tyre Nichols' death is one more example of why there needs to be more accountability and uniform standards across law enforcement.

"I've had guns pointed at my head in some situations from making an arrest, attempting to make an arrest, those kinds of situations," said state Rep. Cecil Thomas, D-Cincinnati, looking back on his days of working as an undercover police officer in the 1980s. "I was well-trained because I came from the community, and it was easy for me to understand how to adapt in that particular type of environment."

For Thomas, wearing the uniform meant being part of the community and helping solve problems, on top of going after criminals. After seeing the body camera of what happened to Nichols in Memphis, he said he feels it isn't a training issue, but it's a problem with holding officers accountable and evaluating their mental state.

"When you have that, that means you have a culture that has allowed itself to become embedded into your organization," said Thomas. "At some point, it's going to show its ugly head and that's exactly what you see here."

Undercover Mini-Tac Unit- 1980s, Cincinnati Police Department

Memphis disbanded the unit known as "SCORPION," or Street Crimes Operation To Restore Peace In Our Neighborhoods. Thomas said he remembers a similar unit in Cincinnati called "Vortex," which the city once described as taking a "zero tolerance approach to street crimes, drug trafficking and quality of life issues."

One area Vortex officers patrolled was Over-the-Rhine. The unit also faced controversy, as one study found, "many African Americans are being arrested for minor matters that are not resulting in arrests in Hyde Park or other white neighborhoods." The study also argued this type of policing "should be eliminated."

"We weren't solving any problems, we were just locking them up and the next one would come along you lock 'em up," Thomas said.

Thomas said he felt it flew in the face of the Collaborative Agreement city leaders and activists signed years prior. He's now pushing for greater police reform, including uniform standards on best practices that all law enforcement agencies should follow when it comes to holding officers accountable, so an incident like the one in Memphis doesn't happen again.

"It takes legislators and the political will to stand up and say OK this is what we need to do and it's just not going to happen," Thomas said.

WCPO asked Cincinnati police how many units it currently has that are similar to SCORPION or Vortex. Minutes before the newscast, a CPD spokesperson said they cannot compare any units unless they have a detailed job description for MPD's SCORPION unit or know the unit's "desired objectives and goals."

"What I can offer, here at CPD our specialized units are carefully designed, internally scrutinized and heavily monitored to operate from an investigatory perspective/lens. Meaning, we utilize crime data, evidence and intelligence gathering, and technology, ie Shot Spotter, to proactively identify repeat violent offenders and violent crime locations within our communities. For example, since 2015, we created and have used a specialized unit known as PIVOT (Placed-Based Investigations of Violent Offender Territories).

PIVOT is a strategy developed to address small areas where violence has been chronic and sustained. This strategy focuses on identifying place networks that facilitate violence. The goal is to disrupt offenders’ ability to harm individuals and the surrounding community, using a problem-oriented approach that capitalizes both on focused deterrence and place network interventions. Sustainable solutions are considered paramount. This approach has been welcomed into our communities and deemed quite effective for us," the spokesperson said.

Iris Roley, one of the authors of the Collaborative Agreement, said they have not set an exact date for when her group will travel to Memphis to meet with city leaders there about potentially changing police policies and procedures.

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