Memphis Tries to Reform its Police Force

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland

By Peter White

NASHVILLE, TN — Memphis is trying to reimagine its police force “as a shield instead of a sword”. Last week Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis) used those words to describe two diametrically opposed views of police work.

Police are supposed to serve and protect but when they go overboard and start treating everybody like suspects, they lose credibility. More importantly, they lose peoples’ respect and trust goes out the window.

Memphis has an oversight board called the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB). It is the equivalent of Nashville’s Community Oversight Board (COB).  And like the COB, CLERB has been unsuccessful in curbing police violence or holding officers accountable who have abused Memphis residents.

For example, two former University of Memphis football players beaten by Memphis police in 2011 sued the city and were awarded $150,000.  The Commercial Appeal reported that in 2013 the city paid out $772,000 to families of two men shot and killed by Memphis policemen. When lawsuits are filed in wrongful death suits and plaintiffs win, Memphis pays out and taxpayers foot the bill.

Changing the toxic relationship between the public and the police is what Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland had in mind when he created a 13-member task force to re-imagine policing in Memphis. The group is tasked with making policy recommendations in four key areas: the use of excessive force, transparency, accountability, and community relations.

Akbari held a virtual town hall meeting last week to get suggestions she will submit to Strickland by the end of December. She got a mouthful from Meggan Kiel who said police practice and its oversight are not working like they are supposed to.

“If CLERB was working as it was written it could work,” said Kiel. “The city council could get the subpoena (to make police officers testify) …but that did not happen,” she said.

“And the times when the process has gone to its conclusion and a recommendation has been issued, Rawlings has rejected them all and the mayor has upheld that,” Kiel said. WREG News Channel 3 in Memphis reported there were five such cases since 2015.

“No one polices themselves ….and you’re not allowed to congratulate your own behavior,” Akbari said.

Akbari listened to a dozen well–informed people, all advocates for police reform, who made several relevant suggestions that ranged from better recruitment of police officers to re-organizing police operations to get the right officers to respond to calls for help from residents instead of calling in the SWAT team.

Whether Strickland takes to heart the suggestions Akbari’s committee will make remains to be seen. He seems to be playing a double game. On one hand, he seems to embrace change. On the other, he has stymied CLERB’s efforts to hold police misconduct to account.

Some CLERB members have resigned in frustration. “The board is pretty much neutered,” said former CLERB volunteer board member John Marek.

Like Nashville, Memphis is looking for a new police chief.  Director Michael Rawlings will retire in April 2021. Mayor Jim Strickland appointed Rawlings one month after he confronted an angry crowd that had taken over the Hernando de Soto Bridge on I-40 in July 2016. Rawlings walked off the bridge arm in arm with Black Lives Matter protestors. For awhile, it looked like the Memphis PD would get along better with the community.

Rawlings turned out to be much more a law and order man than an advocate for police reform. The crime rate stayed high during his tenure. In 2020 the violent crime rate in Memphis is 85.7, almost double New Orleans and 4 times higher than the U.S. average. Property crime in Memphis is 81.1, more than double the national average.

According to the FBI, Chattanooga (25), Nashville (20), and Memphis(2) are among 25 cities with the highest violent crime rates in the U.S.

Rawlings announced his retirement last year so his planned April 2021 departure was not influenced by the George Floyd demonstrations which led to the resignation in August of Nashville’s former police chief Steve Anderson.

Jill Fitcheard, executive director of Nashville’s COB is a candidate for Anderson’s old job in Nashville.

If she gets picked it will mean a victory for community oversight in Nashville. Fitcheard will try to change the blue wall and end the code of silence but she will only be as effective as Mayor John Cooper allows her to be. She will face fierce opposition from the powerful police union.

Fitcheard’s bid to be chief is a sign of desperation—a Hail Mary pass—because the COB has been unable to reign in police misconduct. State legislators passed a law in May 2019 prohibiting community oversight boards from issuing subpoenas and that has crippled civilian police oversight. (see Tennessee Tribune, Dickson Republican Tells House Committee Gutting COB is Best Practice, March 7, 2019.)

The COB lacks the authority to get at the truth nor can it enforce consequences for officers who misbehave. It can only recommend. In short, community oversight is a paper tiger made so by a law passed by a Republican majority in both houses.

Ernie Hilliard is a member of the Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope (MICAH) It’s like Nashville Organization for Action and Hope (NOAH). He has a prison ministry and was on Akbari’s conference call last week.

He said Rawlings and Strickland tried to get the Memphis City council to hire 800 more police officers and allow them to live outside the city. “But city council stood up and opposed them on both points and won,” Hilliard said.

“There are other causal factors involved in crime other than just policing. There has always been this kind of narrative that to keep you safe there has to be more police,” he said.

Hilliard said it’s an easy story to tell because it’s simple and it gets politicians elected but reducing crime is not just a function of putting more police on the street.

How they act and what they do on the job to de-escalate violence is more important than the blunt instrument of law enforcement. “It’s a false narrative to say it will make you feel safe. Yeah, you do need police to deal with the bad guys but most of the community are not bad guys,” Hilliard said.