One answer to the question, Who Will Watch the Watchers? is the Department of Justice.
But, did Memphis get in just under the wire on the U.S. Department of Justice’s review of the city’s policing practices?
Just 13 days before the Presidential election, the city and the DOJ’s division of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) announced a collaborative and voluntary review and reform of police practices in Memphis.
DOJ attorneys and career staff, especially in the Civil Rights division, are polishing their resumes in anticipation of a Trump administration that would neuter investigations into police abuses, hate crimes and more.
Meanwhile, the show must go on, and five COPS staffers from Washington and three contractors who are part of the review team were in Memphis this week during the "assessment" phase of their project. The DOJ folks seem serious and methodical, taking things in and being circumspect in comments other than to explain their plan and process.
A good sign is that they sought the locals' advice on where to eat and found their way to Memphis BBQ. They were guarded in their comments about everything else, so we won't reveal too much here, except to say they reported BBQ was Central to their culinary experience, and it seemed BBQ was the One and Only thing they enjoyed most.
The COPS point man for the Memphis review is George Fachner who, along with other DOJ staff and contractors hired to help the Memphis assessment, conducted two public listening sessions. Some citizens told personal horror stories of police abuses, from beatings to threats to false arrests to verbal abuse. Others asked the COPS staff to help improve systemic issues, such as hiring guidelines to make sure they were not employing war veterans with PTSD.
DOJ panelists sat stone-faced as they listened. We are sure they have heard it all before. The stories that come out of Memphis about young men being shot by police, lack of prosecutions of police, police defensiveness, the politics of citizen review, and everything else are the same in every city in America. A reporter could almost pull out a dozen newspaper stories as templates and fill in the blanks.
The overriding theme from citizens, however, was that it does no good to complain to the police about the police. Police thwart and discourage complaints before they get started, with various tactics including threats and intimidation, citizens testified. The city has its Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, but the most that CLERB can do, as a practical matter, is shine light on abuses that otherwise would not get public notice. In order to get to CLERB, however, a citizen first must go through the processes of MPD’s Inspectional Services Bureau, aka internal affairs, and the barriers therein. Many who have gone that route found the process flawed and not worth the trouble.
During the Obama administration, the civil rights division opened investigations of police departments in 23 U.S. cities. Nineteen of those have been completed, and they resulted in agreements or consent decrees requiring reforms that the cities must implement and must pay to monitor.
Under the George W. Bush administration there were none, and the DOJ was throttled as civil rights and voting rights abuses were under-investigated, compared to the Clinton years. Bush notoriously fired federal attorneys after some got too close to investigations of misconduct by Republicans. Many career staffers were replaced by inexperienced partisan Bush appointees who were hostile to the mission of the civil rights division.
In 2011, the COPS division began what they termed “collaborative reviews” of certain cities’ police departments, beginning with Las Vegas, which is the only review that has been completed. These assessments and recommendations are voluntary on the part of the cities, and the DOJ pays for it. Memphis is one of 13 cities currently under such a review.
The review of Memphis, which was announced Oct. 26, 2016, in a joint press conference that included mayor Jim Strickland and police chief Michael Rallings, was the last one announced by the COPS office before the election. One other such review, of Fort Pierce, Florida, was announced Nov. 10.
While it is almost a certainty that during a Trump administration Civil Rights Division investigations of police departments will be non-existent, will the COPS office initiate further such collaborative reviews? Unlike the Civil Rights Division investigations, the COPS reviews are invited by the cities and their police administrators. A partisan administration could: 1-- allow future such initiatives to begin; 2-- merely allow ongoing reviews to play out, or 3-- cripple ongoing reviews by under-funding COPS and by other methods.
Memphis and the other cities signed up in a very different political environment. If nothing else, a worthy motivation for the city of Memphis to join this process was as a hedge against a Civil Rights Division investigation in the future.
Police think they should be autonomous and not subject to review by anyone – not their mayors, not citizen oversight boards, but especially not by the DOJ. At this point, will any police chiefs volunteer to open up their departments to even the COPS division?
We suspect not.
The President's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, completed in 2015, provides a blueprint for how police departments should move forward. In this decade as cell phone videos proliferated, we have seen police killing unarmed people, especially unarmed, young, black men, which refuted police claims of self-defense. Black Lives Matter grew out of these abuses, but now BLM in the Trump administration may be framed as the black KKK, and its organizers could be harassed or investigated.
The Emancipation Proclamation. Civil rights. Voting rights. Equality and justice advances in America have most significantly come from the federal level. It has been a rough and uneven ride through history, but states often have been saved from themselves and their suppression of people by the supremacy of federal law and courts. We appear to be entering a trough along the ride.
Days after the Presidential election, the head of the COPS division in charge of these reviews resigned. Noble Wray, who was the front man at the Oct. 26 press conference in Memphis, resigned “for personal reasons,” the COPS office says. Wray’s title was Chief of Policing Practices and Accountability Initiatives. He was on the job less than a year. Wray formerly was chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin.
“Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” as Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Man. Citizens who spoke out at the COPS listening sessions are hopeful that this project can result in positive changes within the police department and its culture. But, it is a cautious optimism, as they know a track record of city officials in Memphis blocking initiatives on behalf of justice, equality and poverty.
It is fair to assume that good things will emerge, although in what areas and to what degree remains to be seen. The most minimal hope, in the new political environment, is that COPS will be allowed to continue their work in Memphis and elsewhere. The city and the country ache for it.
The Memphis-filmed documentary feature Who Will Watch the Watchers? examines filming the police and the divide between police and the community. The film has not been released, and recently Freedom Rider Dr. Rip Patton became involved in the film as narrator of the trailer and portions of the film.
A la C-Span, we posted raw video from the Nov. 30 listening session held at Hickory Hill Community Center. The video includes the majority, but not the entirety of, the meeting.