‘Hot Spot’ Cops Killed Tyre Nichols in Memphis. Hochul Wants More in New York.

The controversial units have been responsible for high-profile killings and civil rights abuses in cities nationwide. Hochul doubled their state grant funding in New York — and wants to double it again.

Chris Gelardi   ·   January 30, 2023
Governor Kathy Hochul highlights proposals to increase police funding at the Capital Region Crime Analysis Center in Albany on January 24, 2023. | Darren McGee / Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

“We’re doubling down,” Governor Kathy Hochul said last week of her policing agenda. Three days before the city of Memphis, Tennessee, released four videos of officers with its police department’s SCORPION street crime unit beating Tyre Nichols to death, Hochul spoke at a police intelligence hub in Albany, touting plans to ramp up state government support for similar squads in New York.

The SCORPION unit, which the Memphis Police Department announced it was disbanding on Saturday, was a “hot spot” policing team, tasked with flooding crime-dense urban areas with street cops in the hopes of smothering interpersonal violence. Such units have popped up across the country in recent years — including in New York, where Hochul is planning to funnel tens of millions of dollars to initiatives focused on hot spot policing and related strategies.

The governor’s policing agenda centers on beefing up a grant program that pushes local law enforcement to aggressively patrol crime-dense communities, closely monitor their members, and compile information on likely “offenders.” The initiative, the Gun Involved Violence Elimination (GIVE) program, focuses on shootings, but grantees have used its resources to tackle everything from drug crime to parole enforcement. Hochul doubled funding for GIVE last year, and has proposed doubling it again in this year’s state budget.

A spokesperson for the governor noted that GIVE is a “nationally recognized program that requires participating agencies to use proven, evidence-based strategies” to drive down gun violence. Grantee departments “must engage with the community, use procedural justice,” and submit their implementation plans to the state for approval. The spokesperson rejected any comparison between GIVE and Memphis’s SCORPION unit — “there are no similarities,” they said — but did not address the policing concepts that undergird both initiatives.

Hot spot policing can drive significant short-term crime reductions, research has found, but cops often employ violent tactics in their pursuit. The units have been responsible for some of the highest-profile instances of police abuse in recent years, including the 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Launched in 2014, New York’s GIVE initiative offers cash and technical assistance to police and sheriff’s departments, district attorneys, and probation offices in 17 counties across the state. The aim, in Hochul’s words, is to allow them to “focus on the small number of individuals” responsible for “persistent violent crime.”

Cornerstones of GIVE include hot spot policing and “focused deterrence,” which take as their central premise that a limited group of people are usually responsible for most of the interpersonal violence that takes place in crime-dense areas. Police departments identify crime hot spots and ramp up patrols, community outreach, and undercover operations there, while gathering information about perceived troublemakers — and targeting them for arrest, sometimes for virtually any infraction.

“We’re not defunding the police. We are really ramping up funding for police.”

—Governor Kathy Hochul

In July 2017, for example, Syracuse police came up with a list of 34 people “at the highest risk for perpetrating or being a victim of gun crime” in an area experiencing many shootings, then watched them closely for six months. By the end, cops had arrested 26 of them through “proactive enforcement efforts,” according to a GIVE annual report.

The report didn’t mention how police came to target the nearly three dozen people, nor why they were arrested. But that program dovetailed with another Syracuse police initiative, also featured in a GIVE report, which focused on getting alleged gang members off the streets by throwing the book at them whenever possible. “We’re going to make [their] lives miserable,” Richard Trudell, who helped implement the program, told Syracuse.com when the initiative launched a decade ago. He said that anything from warrant sweeps to child support enforcement to parking tickets was on the table.

GIVE efforts similarly target people on parole and probation. Police reports and a complaint from a 2016 civil rights lawsuit show that, as part of GIVE policing, Syracuse cops, county sheriff’s deputies, and US Marshals closely monitored and conducted home inspections of parolees. In one instance, they staked out the home of a man whom they suspected of dealing cocaine, then followed him in an unmarked car as he drove his son to school. They eventually pulled him over, drove him to his house, and handcuffed his family as they searched his home, where they reported finding drugs.

Officials report that local GIVE-funded campaigns have corresponded with reductions in violent crimes in target areas. One GIVE report, for example, brags that a hot spot in Buffalo saw a 23 percent decrease in shootings between 2013 and 2018. “We’re investing in what we know works,” Hochul said of the program during her State of the State address this month.

But it’s not a panacea: Overall, shooting numbers from GIVE jurisdictions have followed nationwide trends.

“It’s not like hotspot policing has actually succeeded in any long term crime turn around,” said Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, professor of law at American University and author of The Rise of Big Data Policing. “The problem is poverty and disinvestment in communities, not coming up with a new theory of policing.”

Another of GIVE’s strategies focuses on manipulating the landscapes of hot spot communities to make them less hospitable to crime, in part through hostile design concepts like removing structures to improve “natural surveillance” and limiting access to public spaces.

In 2019, a task force in Binghamton learned of an eight-unit apartment building where tenants and neighbors had complained of drug use, disrepair, and loud parties, and where police had been called for overdoses and burglaries, according to a GIVE report. The task force condemned the building, forced the owner to evict all of the tenants, and then, after the owner made repairs on the empty building, lifted the condemned status.

Hot spot enforcement falls within a broader category of street policing doctrines — with roots in “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” — linked to some of the most egregious police abuse incidents in recent memory. The unit that killed Breonna Taylor as she slept in her Louisville, Kentucky, apartment was overseeing a hot spot policing initiative there. In New York City, aggressive street policing teams were responsible for killing Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Sean Bell, Kimani Gray, and dozens of others. From Baltimore to Atlanta to Washington, DC, cops have used these units’ mandates as an excuse to attack community members and commit civil rights abuses.

“It’s not like hotspot policing has actually succeeded in any long term crime turn around.”

—Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, American University

Mainstream criminologists assert that that doesn’t have to be the case. Scholars like David Weisburd, who worked with one of the earliest hot spot units in Minneapolis in the 1980s, has long argued that police departments could both drive down crime and retain legitimacy if they gave hot spot cops better training on how to respect community members. Others have echoed the idea.

Yet problematic departments are still frequently tasked with carrying out the aggressive strategies. Syracuse police feature especially prominently in GIVE reports. In 2020, the state attorney general’s office launched an investigation into the Syracuse Police Department over whether it “engages in policies or practices that negatively impact communities of color,” per documents obtained by Central Current. Syracuse cops have told investigators that the department routinely disregards civil rights laws to make arrests, with one recalling that he was instructed: “Don’t worry about probable cause.”

The attorney general’s office told New York Focus that the nearly three-year investigation is ongoing.

Last year, Hochul doubled state funding for the GIVE program. In her State of the State address this month, she announced plans to double that again, bringing a program that received $9 million in 2021 to $36 million this year. The latest funding increase would enable the hiring of 150 new police officers and prosecutors.

It’s one of several ways Hochul is planning to boost law enforcement funding in this year’s state budget. And unlike at the local level, where officials like New York City Mayor Eric Adams are routinely grilled over proposals to increase police funding, Hochul’s expansion plans have so far received little scrutiny.

New York’s Crime Analysis Center Network, a series of 10 regional police intelligence hubs, works closely with officers working on GIVE projects. Syracuse police developed the 34 focused deterrence targets with help from the Onondaga Crime Analysis Center, and in 2020, Rochester police worked with the Monroe Crime Analysis Center to monitor community members’ Facebook accounts in order to label them as gang members — a practice activists assert is ripe for errors and abuse.

Last year, Hochul nearly doubled funding to the network — from $8 million to $15 million. And in her recent State of the State, she announced plans to create a crime analysis center focused on New York City.

Hochul is also deploying the state’s own street cops to help local departments police crime-dense areas. Last year, she doubled the capacity of the New York State Police’s Community Stabilization Units, increasing their funding to $13 million and deploying them to 16 communities across the state. In her recent State of the State, she announced similar plans to expand the units, deploying them to 25 communities. They are deployed “to address violence and surges in crime” and “remove guns and drugs from the streets,” according to the spokesperson for her office.

And Hochul is planning on further boosting the State Police’s ranks. The department halted training for new uniformed officers when the Covid-19 pandemic hit; the governor plans to give it funding for four new academy classes.

“We’re not defunding the police,” the governor assured a crowd of cops and reporters last week. (No New York jurisdiction has significantly cut law enforcement spending since “defund the police” became a common activist slogan in 2020.)

“We are really ramping up funding for police. So all that era is over.”

Chris Gelardi is a reporter for New York Focus investigating the state’s criminal-legal system. His work has appeared in more than a dozen other outlets, most frequently The Nation, The Intercept, and The Appeal. He is a past recipient of awards from Columbia… more
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