Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Police Union Concerns about Citizen Oversight May Be Overblown, Based on Atlanta and Knoxville Results

Memphis Police Association concerns in opposition to a stronger citizen review  board may be overblown, based on experiences of police departments and citizen oversight boards in Atlanta and Knoxville.

Major Byron K. Martin
The Atlanta Citizen Review Board and the Knoxville Police Advisory and Review Committee both have the authority to issue subpoenas, and both those boards allow citizens to bring complaints directly to the citizen boards – without first making a complaint about the police to the police Internal Affairs office.

The Memphis Police Association does not want a citizen board to be able to independently investigate a complaint of police misconduct, MPA attorney Deborah Godwin told a meeting of stakeholders Monday July 27 at City Hall.   The MPA wants the oversight board to function merely as an appeals body, using MPD’s Internal Affairs report to review the complaint of a citizen who is not satisfied with the way MPD’s investigation turned out.

A proposed amended ordinance before Memphis City Council would strengthen the effectiveness of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board and would make filing a complaint more user-friendly to the public. 

Ordinance sponsor Councilwoman Wanda Halbert has scheduled a meeting for 2 p.m. today at City Hall to include police and union representatives, the people’s coalition Memphis United and members of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.  Although Halbert’s ordinance is on the brink of approval by the full Council, she has thrown open a discussion which may lead to changes in the ordinance. 

Atlanta Police Chief George Turner was asked about citizen oversight earlier this year, and he told radio station WABE:

Chief George Turner --photo by Mike Eloy WABE
“I think it is absolutely encouraging that we have a citizen review, that citizens have another opportunity to look at the work of the police department, that some outside entity is looking at the officers' actions as well." --Atlanta Police Chief George Turn

The Memphis police union’s primary, stated complaint for months has been that it does not want the citizen board to have subpoena-issuing authority.  However, a provision in the ordinance that the board would have subpoena powers was recently negotiated out of the proposal, thus eliminating the police union’s complaint about subpoena usage leading to privacy issues.

“We always get responses from officers,” said Charles Curry, outreach specialist at the Atlanta Citizen Review Board.  “Subpoena power is not extensively used.  The police chief is cooperative, but we have subpoena power in the law, because the next chief may not be cooperative.”


The ACRB did not initially have subpoena authority, but the city ordinance was amended in 2010 to give the board the power to compel testimony and documents. 

“ACRB investigators do not have to subpoena officers,” said Major Byron K. Martin, commander of the Atlanta Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards.  “If officers are contacted, they come and talk to the investigators. 

“The investigators present their findings to the board.  As for requiring officers to testify before the board, I don’t believe that has been occurring.  

“Officers are compelled to cooperate with the ACRB, and if not they can be sanctioned.  To date, I’m not aware of any that don’t cooperate,” Martin said. 

MPA representatives raise concerns about officers’ privacy, but in the case of Knoxville’s oversight board, no officers or citizens are named in summaries of complaints, which appear statistically on its website. 

The Atlanta board posts meeting minutes on its website, and cases are succinctly summarized.  The complainant and the officer are named, but no one’s address is posted, and there is no personal type information about the officer -- other than his or her history of misconduct. 


On the Knoxville Police Advisory Review Committee website, statistics for cases are broken down by categories and demographics, such as ethnicity and sex.  The Knoxville board also reports on such things as police adherence to video recording policies and racial profiling cases. 

Although citizens may make complaints directly to PARC, the committee also exercises oversight of cases which originated with Knoxville Police Department Internal Affairs. 

Discussions in Memphis about the citizen board have played out in a context of local and national instances of police shootings of unarmed citizens, including the July 17 fatal police shooting of 19-year-old, University of Memphis-bound Darrius Stewart.  Memphis United presented its report and amended ordinance to City Council committees on the morning of April 7.  That night, millions of Americans watched as network news led with images of Walter Scott being fatally shot in the back by a policeman in South Carolina.

The outcome of Memphis’ citizen board further has become clouded by politics as city elections loom, but in Atlanta, Martin says, “We have to work together and make sure we are on the same page.  Having a citizen board is a great thing, and we keep working to make it better.

“The vision and purpose of the ACRB is the same as ours.  Our purpose is to get the truth, not to convict or exonerate anyone, but to find out what the facts are and do it as impartially as possible, then to administer discipline, and put forth the training, or whatever needs to be done,” he said. 

“Sometimes incidents expose a gap in policy that needs to be changed.  Our purpose is to make sure we are the most professional police department in the country.  Their purpose is to make sure we are able to do what we need to do properly. “

Asked about some police departments’ inclinations to be defensive and self-protective, Martin said, “Is your goal to get better or feel good about where you are?  We should always aim to be better, not just to be comfortable where we are and survive another year.”

“We have access to the video from in-car cameras, access to the officers, and we have subpoena power,” Knoxville PARC executive director Avice Evans Reid said in an interview with WATE-TV. “We want to make sure citizens understand why officers do the things that they do, and by the same token we want the officers to understand we want them to do their job, but we want them to do it and respect citizens at the same time.”

In one case, PARC’s review led to KPD adding more training for officers on the use of knives, particularly when it comes to cutting car crash victims out of seat belts and when medical attention is needed.

KPD Chief David Rausch told WATE that although he was skeptical of PARC as a young officer when it was first created, he now believes the group has benefited both the department and the community.

“Since the creation of PARC, clearly there has been more engagement with our community, and we have seen an increase in trust,” Rausch said.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Back to the Future at City Hall

It was a Time Machine, surely, that enveloped Memphis City Hall on Monday July 27, causing city officials conveniently to blot out vast expanses of history while they appeared to onlookers to be speaking in real time.

City Council

Although an ordinance she sponsored to strengthen police oversight was on the brink of passing the full Council, Councilwoman Wanda Halbert trashed more than a year of painstaking progress and started back at zero, bringing together polar opposites to agree on a new ordinance.

Mayor and Administration

Not to be outdone, the city administration rewound history to mid-2013, before Mayor A.C. Wharton pushed for a policy about citizens filming police and before Wharton said the police oversight board needed to have more clout.  Chief Administrative Officer Jack Sammons of Wharton’s administration sent his administrative assistant to say, “Never mind,” about all that talk we have been doing for more than a year about supporting an upgrade to a citizen police oversight committee.

Rounding out the absurd, Police Director Toney Armstrong, who is sworn to uphold the law, apparently has not cooperated with the existing Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board ordinance by failing to refer Internal Affairs appeals to the citizen board.  Straight-faced and pushing the “reset” button on his four-year tenure as chief, Armstrong said now he is ready to go to work with the ordinance as it has existed since 1994.  In an April 21 City Council committee hearing, Armstrong acknowledged that his department has not sent a single case to CLERB, thus being a key roadblock to the board not working.

While the existing ordinance allows for the CLERB to independently investigate complaints, in practice, the board in the past operated as an appellate body, receiving complaints from aggrieved citizens who were not satisfied with Internal Affairs' findings.  At some point CLERB’s subcontractor investigator was terminated by the city, and the board thus became dependent on receiving cases from MPD.  This system apparently functioned for a while, although not during Armstrong’s or Wharton’s tenures. 

MPD likes it that way.  In fact, MPD and the police union state they do not want CLERB to independently investigate complaints, but merely act as an appeals body after IA has finished its report.  This forces citizens to complain to the ones who abused them in the first place and thus discourages people from coming forward.
Political Calculations
Are Wharton, who is running for re-election, and Halbert, who is running for Shelby County Criminal Court Clerk, politically blowing the police?  Wharton has not replied to our interview requests, and Halbert had a political response about “doing the right thing” when we asked her about political pressure from police and the union.

Per the city’s new position, the impotent ordinance would remain as is, but the CLERB would have a website and a $200,000 annual budget, which Halbert got Council to approve June 16, for staff positions including an investigator. 

Armstrong and Memphis Police Association executive director Mike Williams have a biting disdain for the people’s coalition Memphis United, and Armstrong said he wanted to hear no more from them – he wanted to hear from a sitting member of the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.  Note to Armstrong:  Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.  Armstrong got an earful from CLERB Chairman Rev. Ralph White, who squarely blamed the police department for sabotaging the civilian board by not forwarding citizen complaints to it.
“There’s a lot of underhanded things that have gone on,” White said.  “Citizens ask, ‘Who’s hiding something?’”

Since we have some grasp of history – and Internet access that often works -- in May 2014, Halbert and others on City Council’s public safety committee passed a resolution asking Memphis United to study the problem of police oversight, to have town hall meetings in the seven council districts and to come back to City Council with a report.  Memphis United did so, at no charge to the city, and the result was proposed changes to an existing police oversight ordinance which would give the citizen board subpoena power and would allow aggrieved citizens to complain directly to their peers rather than only to police internal affairs officers. 

This happened on April 7.  As Casey Stengel said, “You can look it up.”  On April 16, Armstrong and police union representatives; city attorneys; CLERB representatives including Rev. White, and Memphis United representatives met for an unofficial hash-it-out – you know, the same meeting they held yesterday but which police and Halbert act as if it never happened.  Memphis United had alerted the media of the meeting; however, when reporters and camera crews showed up, the city and police refused to let them in the room.

On April 21, council committees approved the proposed ordinance and sent it to the full Council.

Halbert was one of those who voted on April 21 to move the ordinance along as it stood. 

Continuing through the gauntlet of how an ordinance becomes law, the proposal was read out at three City Council meetings and came time for a vote on July 7.  However, Halbert voted to not vote that day.  And as sponsor of the ordinance, she got the vote put off again on July 21. 

Never mind that City Council had more than enough votes to pass the ordinance on July 7 and July 21, and since this ordinance was Halbert’s baby, she would be pushing to get it passed and declare victory – right?
Instead, Halbert retreated to the starting line yesterday as if none of this had ever happened -- must have been a dream or something. 
The time for a let’s-hash-it-out meeting that includes representatives of Memphis United, the CLERB board, the police and police union would have been after May 2014’s resolution and before the ordinance passed out of Halbert’s public safety committee on April 21 – and such a meeting happened, the aforementioned, closed-door meeting on April 16.
Needless to say, no good came out of Monday’s meeting.  Halbert said, Let’s meet again Wednesday, and we will come up with an ordinance “that we all agree on,” and I will carry that back to City Council.
The idea of getting this group to hold hands around the campfire and agree on a 15-page document when the parties are at opposite poles is even more far-fetched than, say, a time machine in City Hall.
According to Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and an advocate for the upgraded police oversight policy, Mayor Wharton as recently as Thursday told Watkins that he would continue to support the revamped ordinance.
Wharton has publicly said the citizen review board needed more clout, including the authority to issue subpoenas.   Link to video of Wharton’s remarks Jan. 28, 2014, at Rhodes College:
City Council had the votes to pass the ordinance – which includes recent concessions in favor of the police union’s position that the board would not have subpoena power and that the citizen board cannot see any information from Internal Affairs before it completes a complaint report – on July 7.  That version of the ordinance is what they should pass when they next meet on Aug. 4.  Then, the time warp can be closed.
Instead, Halbert plans to reconvene the same group at 2 p.m. Wednesday to do the same thing all over again.  Anybody got the lyrics to “Kumbaya?”

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. 

Friday, July 24, 2015

Non-Violence Etiquette, Rally Tonight, Jaw-Boning Monday

Here is a Dropbox link to some information about non-violent protest and how a citizen should act if confronted by police

Justice for Darrius Stewart rally tonight 6 p.m. at 5777 Winchester in Memphis.  This is a peaceful protest honoring the 19-year-old Memphian who was shot and killed by a police officer on July 17. 

Mayor Wharton has pledged that police will not interfere or intimidate.  

Upon seeing that a girl posted on social media that she planned to attend the rally, a Memphis police officer contacted the girl and told her she needed a permit "to attend the riot."  Let's be cool, y'all.  Hopefully, Mayor Wharton's sentiments will be shared by MPD officers.  A young son with a bright future has been lost, so give people room to grieve or vent.

The effort to revive Memphis Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board has been stalled and delayed, and the next move is a meeting at 2 p.m. Monday on the 5th floor of City Hall, 125 N. Main.  This meeting is open to the public, although at a similar meeting in April, the press was shut out.  CLERB board members are expected to be present as well as representatives from MPD, the police union and a people's group called Memphis United coalition who have been leading on this issue. 

Terms of an ordinance to revive the police oversight board and to strengthen its authority have been wrung out and boiled down into a form that will get a majority vote to approve from city council.  The proposed ordinance has been before the full city council since April 21.  On July 7, the police union achieved its main, stated goal -- the striking down of subpoena power on the part of the citizen board.  Yet, police and police union representatives reportedly continue to pick at the ordinance.  The police do not want the citizen board to investigate citizen complaints independent from Police Internal Affairs, but only as an appeals outlet after the police have completed their own investigation. 

The CLERB board has no standing to negotiate any terms of the ordinance.  That is strictly in the province of the city council. 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Snowden Filmmaker Sues U.S. Over Harassment

Filmmaker Laura Poitras, who won an Academy Award for her documentary, Citizenfour, which
chronicled Edward Snowden's release of information about government spying on citizens, has sued the United States to find out why she has been detained at airports more than 50 times.

Poitras filed a Freedom of Information Act request to find out what the government had on her, to see her file and to learn their reason for detaining a working journalist who had broken no laws.   The government agencies, however, refused to hand over what they had. 

On Monday, Poitras sued those agencies.  The 51-year-old Boston native said she was filing the FOIA suit against the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in support of “the countless other less high-profile people who have also been subjected to years of Kafkaesque harassment at the borders.”

Poitras said officials have confiscated her laptop, phone, cameras and notes and copied their contents.

Links to stories about Poitras' lawsuit:

Monday, July 13, 2015

We and the Greeks, all in the same boat....don't be fooled

Powerful and sociopathic forces are running the world into the ground.  That "whooshing" sound,
down the drain or down the crapper, which is the background noise for the angry, mass protests in Greece, can be heard in the U.S. and everywhere. 

We don't think we have slavery in America, but to have a permanent, expanding bottom class which is imprisoned in a box of very limited opportunity is an enslavement.  The Powers are taking away education and replacing education with prison.  With the loss of education, comes political unawareness, which is exacerbated by our being too tired and busy to notice political moves, because we must have multiple jobs just to keep even.

Chris Hedges lays it out as only he can in this story:  "We Are All Greeks Now."  Reprinted in OpEd News, from truthdig. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

For Regular Americans, It's Sink or Swim: You're on Your Own

Linked at Daily Kos:

Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Luckovich of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution hits the mark with this simple depiction of Republican policy: let's give "government handouts" to the wealthiest and the least needy, but those pesky poor people, no, let's not give struggling people a chance at hope and opportunity. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Former Baltimore officer decries "us vs. them as enemy" mentality

When police have the mindset that it's us versus them, that everybody else is the enemy, reason is out the window -- as is dealing with other humans as a human.  Former Baltimore officer Mike Wood had an epiphany and says cops need empathy to replace aggression and sadism. 

Read this former officer's interview with Nashville author Radley Balko, who wrote, "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."