Sunday, July 26, 2015

Police Oversight Overripe for a Vote, But Jawboning Continues

While sadness and anger continue over the fatal police shooting of 19-year-old prospective med student Darrius Stewart, Memphis police department and police union officials move behind closed doors Monday July 27 in an effort to scuttle a proposed city ordinance to strengthen the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.  

While it is not surprising that police interests want less scrutiny, it is surprising that the ordinance’s sponsor, City Council member Wanda Halbert, seems to be enabling delays and potshots at the ordinance, which has been on the public record for review since April 7, 2015. 

Memphis City Council has twice had a chance to vote on the ordinance – and apparently had the votes to approve it – but stumbled through needless delays.  The decision to pass the ordinance rests solely within the province of City Council.


However, a meeting with police representatives; Halbert; the people’s group Memphis United, and CLERB board members to be held at 2 p.m. Monday at City Hall has no standing to vote on or change the ordinance.   The meeting will be held in the fifth floor conference room.

Monday’s meeting will be open, Halbert says, although a similar meeting in April with the same stake-holders was closed to the public and the press at the request of the police – even though TV reporters and camera crews showed up. 


City Council could have voted to pass the amended ordinance as it stood when it met on July 7.  However, when MPD administration asked for a delay, ordinance sponsor Halbert blinked and went along with postponing the vote for two weeks – which came and went on Tuesday July 21.  Council had the votes to pass the ordinance at that time, also, but did not even consider the matter -- at Halbert’s request -- baffling the media who came prepared to record the outcome of this much-awaited measure for police oversight and accountability.

Halbert had asked Council Chairman Myron Lowery to delay the vote until Aug. 4, and Lowery agreed as protocol has it that such a request from an ordinance’s sponsor is honored.   Lowery had encouraged Council members not to delay but to go ahead and vote on the ordinance at the July 7 council meeting.


Instead of then getting the expected final vote on the 21st, police administration and the union wrangled for an unofficial meeting to be held Monday July 27 with Halbert and members of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.  The police union’s objective is to continue to strip away provisions that make the complaint process more user-friendly to citizens and which make the board more effective.

Police want the CLERB board to operate only as an appellate body and without the authority to investigate a complaint on its own, independent from or concurrent with, an MPD Internal Affairs investigation.  This guts the intent of the ordinance which allows citizens to complain to citizen peers, rather than having to complain to the source of the grievance, the police department, which is often defensive and protective of its own.

City Council has approved a $200,000 budget for CLERB to retain an executive director, an investigator, an administrative assistant and miscellaneous expenses.

Halbert defends extending the drama and going along with the Monday meeting as putting the issue “on the public table” – although the ordinance has been public and available to police and the police union since no later than April 7, and it has been through three City Council readings and two additional City Council meeting opportunities for comments and a vote.  

“It may be that we tweak it in some kind of way, or it may be that we keep it as it is,” Halbert says, although continued tinkering with the language of the ordinance may only serve to push it farther down the road, if not over the cliff.

At the request of City Council last year, Memphis United at no cost to the city prepared a report on the police oversight board after holding town hall meetings in the seven council districts. 


A key provision of the amended ordinance that Memphis United proposed was that the oversight board would have subpoena powers as do similar citizen oversight boards in Atlanta and Knoxville. 

However, that provision was removed from the ordinance by council members on July 7 after private attorney Allan Wade, who also operates as a salaried and contract attorney for the city, presented a last-minute opinion that Council did not have the authority to confer subpoena power upon a board.   Wade had been asked by Councilman Alan Crone to provide an opinion prior to the July 7 meeting so that Wade would not blindside Council with a contrary opinion from the floor as Council was preparing to vote.  Wade’s “opinion” was dated July 6, although the ordinance had been in the hands of City Council committees since April 7, and despite the fact that several Council members are attorneys and University of Memphis law professor Steven Mulroy had reviewed the ordinance.  Wade says there was “no conspiracy” with the last-minute maneuver which threw a kink in the works, and he said it is not unusual to raise such issues even as Council is preparing to vote. 

Besides the striking of the board’s proposed subpoena power, the only other meaningful change to the ordinance was that the board was not permitted to receive information from Internal Affairs while IA was conducting its own investigation but only after IA had completed its report. 

Thus, the only two changes were both in favor of the police administration’s and police union’s position, which made disingenuous the police request to have extra time to “study” the ordinance. 


While the Atlanta Citizen Review Board and the Knoxville Police Advisory and Review Committee both have subpoena powers, those citizen bodies also receive complaints directly from aggrieved citizens.  Citizens also may complain concurrently, or alternately, to police Internal Affairs. 

Memphis’ citizen board has not heard any cases for more than six years, says CLERB Chairman Rev. Ralph White, after its subcontractor investigator was “let go” by the city.   At an April 21 Council joint committee meeting of public safety and personnel committees, Police Director Toney Armstrong acknowledged that Internal Affairs had not sent any complaints to the citizen board while he had been chief.   The board has heard no cases while A.C. Wharton has been mayor.  When the board actually was meeting in the last decade, Internal Affairs at times would refer to the board citizens who were dissatisfied with IA’s findings. 

After incidents in 2013 and 2014 in which police arrested people who videoed police behavior, those arrested complained to Internal Affairs and discovered that the CLERB board had not been functioning, although it continued to have a page on the city’s website – that was its only “presence.”  After that made the news, the city administration re-appointed CLERB board members.


“We have met six or seven times since then, and we have not had any citizen complaints yet,” says White, who laments the police have referred no dissatisfied complainants and that the public is largely unaware of the "toothless" CLERB.  “It’s a waste of our time to go these meetings.”

Memphis United, a people’s coalition consisting of concerned citizens and organized with the help of Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and other non-profit entities which advocate for the rights of regular Memphians, has been running an “outside” or public game.  Their campaign has included public rallies, press conferences, community outreach, town hall meetings and media interviews.  The police department and police union have been running an “inside” game, pushing to quash or delay the ordinance and  using behind-closed-doors maneuvering – as in the April meeting, which was closed to the press and public and which was attended by some of the same parties expected at the Monday July 27 meeting. 

While most Council members were willing to vote for the ordinance as it existed on July 7, some provisions reportedly have been removed or marked up, presumably by police and union attorneys, with the intention to run an end-around -- and with the hope that Councilwoman Halbert will carry more changes and delays back to the full Council as the city’s political season heats up.

Halbert now says there are “two or three different versions of it floating out there.”   


Here is a Dropbox link to the ordinance in its final form as of the July 7 City Council meeting, with edits as presented that day in blue:

The ordinance had enough “yes” votes to pass on that day. 

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