Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland

By Maya Smith
Memphis Flyer

MEMPHIS, TN — A group of Black clergy members said they were “surprised and upset” by city officials’ at last week’s press conference in which they laid out steps to reform the Memphis Police Department (MPD).

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland told the public that over the past four weeks his administration has been meeting with clergy members and other concerned citizens to discuss ways to improve MPD.

City officials announced that the group has reached a consensus around five reforms, which include:

• MPD updated its policies to include the sentiment of “8 Can’t Wait”

• Made improvements to the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), including enhancing communication with the public, providing training for CLERB members and staff, and reviewing the request for members to have subpoena powers

• Started posting board opportunities on the city website

• Began discussions with the Memphis Police Association to look for opportunities to strengthen language in the memoranda of understanding between the city and association to ensure that officers will be held accountable when using excessive force

• Looking to partner with community activists to improve implicit bias, cultural awareness, and cultural diversity training for MPD officers

However, a number of clergy members who participated in the meetings said in a statement Friday that a consensus had not been reached. They also called meetings with officials “frustrating” and “disappointing.”

“As African-American clergy who participated in the meetings, we found the discussions to be frustrating and disappointing overall, characterized largely by those who represent the power structures of Memphis claiming that the processes in place are sufficient,” the statement reads.

“The five reforms presented to us June 24th, the date of the last meeting, stopped far short of the substantive changes we had requested in calling for a reimagined police department. Though the administration couched these reforms as an agreement, we did not, in fact, agree to them. Rather, they demonstrated to us the administration’s lack of courage and appetite for making Memphis truly more equitable for all.”

The statement is signed by Gina Stewart, Revs. Stacy Spencer, Keith Norman, Melvin Watkins, Earle Fisher, J. Lawrence Turner, and Chris Davis, as well as Bishops Ed Stephens Jr. and Linwood Dillard.

The clergy members also noted that none of those who were involved in the meetings were invited to Thursday’s press conference and were not aware that it was taking place.

“Though the administration couched these reforms as an agreement, we did not, in fact, agree to them.”

“Unfortunately, this typifies the tepid spirit of our recent interactions with the administration,” the clergy members said. “What was dressed up for the public yesterday as reform was, in our opinion, reinforcement of the status quo. We continue to be open to taking part in the pursuit of meaningful police reform in Memphis, which people in the streets and throughout the city are clamoring for. But we expect substantive dialogue, genuine agreement, and concrete steps toward major change in the way police interact with the residents of our city.”

Turner, the pastor at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, said he has some concerns and reservations about the five reforms announced yesterday. He also says they “aren’t enough.”

Specifically, Turner said he’s concerned about the statements officials made related to the “8 Can’t Wait” policies. He questions whether or not MPD is in “complete alignment” with the policies.

For example, MPD director Michael Rallings said Thursday that the department has banned chokeholds, but Turner said that the topic was a “source of considerable conversation” during the meetings with officials.

“The way it was discussed in our meetings is as if this is something MPD is particularly open to outright banning,” he said. “If they were really challenged on all the ‘8 Can’t Wait’ policies, I don’t really think that they could really produce proof that they align with all eight; maybe five at best.

Turner also said there needs to be more clarity around CLERB reforms, as well as more empowerment for the board.

“CLERB needs more than more dollars for marketing and communication,” he said. “It needs to be empowered and taken seriously.”

The mayor mentioned recently that reviewing CLERB’s subpoena power would be added to the city’s legislative agenda, but Turner says it needs to be a “top priority.”

Ultimately, Turner said the city and county need to take a more comprehensive look at reforming policing “in a way that is reflective of Memphis’ citizenry.” This process, if done right, should take at least six to 12 months, he said. “ it was made to seem like we had completed the meetings, but the conversation is not over,” Turner said. “Let’s make a real investment in reimagining policing in Memphis and Shelby County.”