Sunday, April 19, 2015

Civilian Police Oversight Works its Way through City Council

Brian Burns, Paul Garner present information to City Council April 7
(Citizens Media Resource photo)
The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement sent a letter to the Memphis City Council, Mayor A.C. Wharton and Police Director Toney Armstrong urging the city to fortify its impotent Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.

Association President Brian Buchner wrote, in part:

“Strengthening the CLERB will help to ensure greater transparency, trust and communication between the Memphis Police Department and the public.  Further, more robust, effective oversight will lead to greater cooperation between Memphis police and the public in achieving the ultimate goal of decreased crime and increased public safety.”                                                                                                   


A City Council Personnel and Public Safety joint committee is expected to vote Tuesday April 21 whether to advance out of committee and move to the full City Council a proposed amendment to the ordinance which established the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.  This body, whose members are appointed by the mayor, was established in 1994, but it did not have subpoena powers or the authority to compel participation of police in an investigation.  In 2008, Councilwoman Janis Fullilove called for an audit of MPD’s complaint process after video surfaced showing the savage beating of Duanna Johnson in police custody. 

The audit was completed in 2009, and a resolution was passed by City Council to form an ad-hoc committee to recommend to Council how to improve the board.  That committee never met. 

After a spate of incidents in 2013 in which people were arrested for videoing police who confiscated their phones and who roughly handled some citizens, including pepper-spraying, Memphis United discovered that the police oversight board had been abandoned without notice by the Wharton administration.  When attention was drawn to the demise of the CLERB -- although it had continued to live on the city website and as a line item in the budget -- new appointments were made. 

A coalition of grassroots activists such as the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Memphis United was commissioned in May 2014 by the City Council to do the work the committee never did in 2009.  Memphis United has collected public input by having town hall meetings in all Council districts, has researched best practices for oversight boards and has made a report to the City Council at no cost to the city.  Memphis United’s findings resulted in a proposed ordinance to the existing framework of CLERB, which calls for the civilian body to have authority to subpoena police records and testimony and to form a website which makes transparent the process of citizen complaints about alleged police abuses.

Memphis United organizing coordinator Paul Garner and law student Brian Burns presented this ordinance amendment jointly to two City Council committees, Personnel and Public Safety, on April 7 – ironically or sadly, the same day that nightly network news led with the video of Walter Scott being shot in the back and killed by a police officer in South Carolina.  Rather than advancing out of committee to the full City Council, council member Bill Boyd and outgoing Chief Administrative Officer George Little got action deferred on the ordinance for two weeks.


The City Council committee required on April 7 that police and city representatives meet with Memphis United prior to its April 21 meeting.  The point of the meeting was for Memphis United representatives and city and police officials to hash out the ordinance and determine any points of agreement and disagreement. 

On April 16 Memphis United met with Little; Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong; Deputy Director Anthony Berryhill; Lt. Mike Winters from MPD internal affairs; assistant city attorney Zayid Saleem, and Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams.  The police oppose strengthening the civilian oversight board, and they complain about the citizens board being able to subpoena records and compel the appearance of officers. 

“They're anti-police,” says Williams, in a shoot-the-messenger reflex against Memphis United.  Williams contends Memphis United represents a narrow segment of Memphis and says he would give more credence to a proposal that came from "the common citizens from Frayser or East Memphis."   This is notwithstanding that City Council assigned the project to Memphis United and that Memphis United brought publicity and town hall meetings to all City Council districts.

The police association had been running a smear and intimidation campaign in social media, posting photos of Garner and comments from and about Garner.  Last week on the police association Facebook page appeared comments about the Memphis United coalition being “hippies,” and having “rap sheets” and being “socialists” and that the city of Memphis is an “anal orifice.”  Later, the most personal and vitriolic posts were removed, although the police association Facebook page has been re-posting messages from the Memphis United Facebook page. 

Garner, Memphis United and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center have supported Memphis police officers and fire fighters in their issues with the city over pay and benefits. 

Memphis United has been campaigning that Memphis must “fix the barrel” of apples, because police abuses are systemic and cannot be dismissed as “a few bad apples.”

The Memphis United Facebook page states that 20 MPD officers were arrested in the last 12 months, “for crimes ranging from solicitation, sexual exploitation of a minor, to DUI.   We can't continue to excuse these as isolated incidents involving #BadApples. Many have had previous complaints filed against them, and many had their charges reduced.  They say it only takes one apple to spoil the bunch, and we know of at least twenty in our barrel.

“We cannot continue to make this about individual bad actors.”

The CLERB now exists in name only, with members appointed but with no meaningful powers, no staff to follow up on complaints and therefore little incentive for a citizen to go through the hoops and hurdles presently required.  Any citizen with a complaint about police misconduct must first complain to MPD internal affairs and await the outcome of that process before taking the matter up with CLERB. 
Matters came to a head after police twice arrested citizens at Manna House homeless refuge in Midtown and after police arrested and pepper-sprayed people for videoing them after a South Main Trolley Night music event Oct. 25, 2013.
In the wake of those incidents, citizens found the process of asking the police to police themselves through Internal Affairs to be highly unsatisfactory, according to Memphis United. 
After three people were charged with "obstructing a sidewalk" as they were leaving and locking up Manna House in November, 2012, they complained to MPD.  Internal Affairs sat on it for nine months before replying that police did no wrong -- although the "obstructing a sidewalk" charges were dropped.
As it seems police target homeless persons, two Memphians were arrested while trying to video police in front of Manna House on Oct. 21, 2013.  Memphis United says police wanted to search the house, but a woman working there told police they needed a warrant.  Police charged them with "obstructing a sidewalk" and "disorderly conduct." 
Those charges also were dropped, but the citizens' complaint to Internal Affairs took six months to yield a reply, which said charges against the police were "not sustained." 
Looking to appeal how Internal Affairs ended those complaints, those arrested found that CLERB no longer existed.
Garner and Williams agree on one thing:  It will be up to City Council, not them or their organizations, to determine if Memphis will join Knoxville, Atlanta and a growing number of cities that have meaningful citizen oversight of police. 
Memphis United is urging Memphians to contact City Council – especially the Council member over a resident’s district – and tell them to strengthen CLERB by supporting the proposed upgrades.

Moore Media & Entertainment, which makes films to illuminate issues of social and economic injustice, has completed its Memphis-produced comedy short, “The Suburban Itch,” and it is being submitted to U.S. and foreign film festivals.  The film is relevant in the context of profiling and police conduct as it takes on racial profiling with a spoof of a role reversal – black motorists lock their doors and are afraid upon seeing a white fellow running along Chelsea Avenue in North Memphis.  Police stop the white jogger, because he looks out of place and might be running away from a crime.

Film website:

Film Facebook page:

Friday, April 3, 2015