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city Slows Institute records Request as Mayor promises action on MPD brutality

As Mayor Jim Strickland vows to ‘fix’ police brutality against African American citizens, his staff puts up roadblocks to accessing records

Memphis mayor Jim Strickland and DeVante Hill spoke at a press conference at I Am A Man Plaza June 3, 2020. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

It was a mesmerizing moment. There at the microphone was Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland, tall — and white — surrounded by black colleagues as he spoke the language of critics who’ve blistered his police department for years.

“If a black person is pulled over, particularly a young black male is pulled over by police, there is a much greater likelihood that something tragic happens (than) if somebody like me is pulled over,’’ Strickland said as he committed to work with community leaders to fix the “problem of how the police deal with black people.’’

Yet Strickland’s offer of openness, considered by many last week as a watershed development in finally reining in police brutality, may be a more daunting task than he thinks.

Even as the mayor prepared his remarks, his Public Records Office said it wants a substantial fee — $6,000 — to release excessive-force complaints filed against Memphis Police Department officers over the last five years. That includes money “for research, labor, and copies at $31.55 per hour’’ — a task that will require months of work, a public records officer said in an e-mail to the Institute for Public Service Reporting.

“Who has $6,000?’’ asked open government advocate Deborah Fisher, who said nothing prohibits officials from waiving fees on issues of intense public interest. Such records typically are routinely examined by police and should be “at the ready’’ and not require months to compile, she said.

“Unless you examine the problem, you can’t fix it. And if they put up roadblocks to examine the problem, how can the public ever fix it?” said Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit that advocates for access to government records and meetings.

The Institute has since revised its request, asking to personally inspect the records. Tennessee law doesn’t allow governments to charge fees for simple inspection. But the question — how long the city will take to produce the records — remains open.

Two requests last week to interview Strickland on this issue were not granted. After a third request Monday, spokesman Dan Springer texted that “the Mayor is unavailable.”

MPD spokesman Louis Brownlee said Monday he would inquire about an interview but added, “You don’t just press a button and this is spit out.” Records must be reviewed and redacted, he said.

The development comes on the heels of longstanding complaints about police secrecy, a concern motivating many people involved in the daily marches and protests that have roiled Memphis for two weeks now following the May 25 police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“It’s ridiculous,’’ said activist Hunter Demster, who says the “unaccountable lack of transparency’’ the city often exhibits regarding policing issues is one reason he considers Strickland’s pledge to reform MPD a “sham.’’

Darin Abston Jr., an activist who claims police used excessive force when he was arrested during a protest on May 30, told the Institute for Public Service Reporting he wants more police accountability. That includes replacing the current civilian review board, which lacks subpoena power and has been labeled a “toothless’’ organization by critics.

Darin Abston Jr. with the Memphis People Coalition demands an apology from a police officer on the eighth night of protests, Wednesday, June 3. He says the officer almost hit him with a squad car earlier in the week. (Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian)

Abston, too, is skeptical of Strickland’s pledge to reform the police.

“I don’t believe it,’’ he said.

“I know what honesty is. And honesty is usually when (a document) has signatures on it. And money being spent. And action being done.’’

Undaunted by such criticism, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings told reporters earlier last week his agency is reviewing all policies to help shore up public trust.

“Our officers rarely use force,’’ MPD Director Michael Rallingsn said at a June 1 news conference, noting that just 2% of the department’s 60,000-plus annual arrests involve force. (Houston Cofield/Daily Memphian file)

“Our officers rarely use force,’’ Rallings said at June 1 news conference, noting that just 2% of the department’s 60,000-plus annual arrests involve force.

He said MPD is committed to improving community relations.

“It takes real work to find common ground and talk about how are we going to move forward,’’ Rallings said. “So, I want you to think, what is the next chapter? How are we going to move forward?’’  

Search for answers

Like many big cities, Memphis has been shaken in recent years by a series of high-profile officer-involved shootings that have wounded or taken the lives of black men.

Each new incident — the 2015 death of Darrius Stewart, the 2018 wounding of Martavious Banks, the fatal shooting last year of Brandon Webber — opened old wounds and stirred new rounds of unrest.

But it’s those many non-fatal interactions — those 60,000 annual arrests Rallings speaks of — where granular answers may be found regarding bias. And though only 2% of those arrests involve some degree of force, numerically it’s a relatively large number — 1,200 a year.

In theory, those arrests involve incidents in which citizens resist arrest. Officers involved in such incidents are required to complete a Response to Resistance Form to document use of force.

In addition to complaints involving excessive force, the Institute has asked for copies of all Response to Resistance forms completed over the past year in the interest of aiding local reporting and creating a public archive of police records. The Institute also seeks:

  • Internal affairs findings over the past year.
  • A variety of personnel and disciplinary data.

One of the daunting obstacles in measuring police bias in citizen interactions is the lack of available data.

The FBI announced in 2018 it would begin collecting data on use of force from police nationwide. But participation in the program is voluntary and incomplete. The FBI is expected to begin releasing that data this summer.  

Much of what the larger public knows about MPD’s use of force comes from violent incidents that explode into the news, like the opens in a new windowbeating of two African-American men near Beale Street that cost the city $589,000 in damages and attorney fees following a 2016 court settlement.

Rallings said MPD “has no policy that allows for a knee to be placed on the neck of any individual,’’ emphasizing that an ambulance must be called if an arrestee requests medical assistance.

“If an officer has placed someone in a position of duress, it is also the obligation of all the officers and the citizens of Memphis to intervene and make sure that we are protecting those individuals,’’ the director told reporters at a news conference Monday, June 1.

MPD didn’t respond last week to a request by the Institute to interview a commander about the agency’s use-of-force policy.

A copy of that policy obtained by the police reform group opens in a new windowCampaign Zero shows MPD has a use-of-force continuum that requires steps officers must take when they encounter resistance, starting with verbal warnings and commands to use of chemical agents to physical combat techniques, use of impact weapons such as batons and finally, as a last resort, deadly force. The policy also requires officers to give a warning before shooting when “feasible.”

However, Campaign Zero contends on its opens in a new window8cantwait.org website that MPD employs only three of eight critical practices the organization believes can dramatically reduce police killings.

Push for Reform

Standing last week in I Am A Man Plaza — holy ground for the civil rights movement — Strickland promised substantial reform.

“We’re gonna have a series of discussions that will lead into concrete actions,’’ he said, flanked by two of the local protests’ key leaders, DeVante Hill and Frank Gottie.

“It’s not just a philosophical discussion. We will have concrete actions to make it better. Obviously, our number one goal is to fix the problem that our police department and every police department in the country has. And that’s how they treat black people differently than white people.’’

Hill vowed to work with Strickland — and challenge him — to enact true reform.

“We are committed to not only holding our city’s mayor accountable, but our police director accountable, our county sheriff accountable, the city leaders accountable. And I’m sure the city leaders are expecting to hold the community accountable to maintain peace,’’ he said.

“When we work together, communicate our differences, we can come to solutions.’’

Strickland’s tone and language — radical for a Memphis mayor — encouraged many. Yet pledges to change are hardly new.

Strickland requested a U.S. Department of Justice review of MPD’s use of force in 2016 as part of a “collaborative reform’’ effort but the initiative was later refocused.

A number of efforts have been undertaken over decades to reform MPD and reduce violent encounters.

The agency has long maintained an early intervention program that aims to identify troubled officers with multiple complaints involving personal conduct, excessive force, car crashes and other issues.

Still, some officers seem to skate through.

When homicide detective Eric Kelly retired last year amid an internal investigation into a sexual relationship he’d had with a murder suspect, he left behind a long trail of disciplinary actions. He’d been fired in 1998 for allegedly beating a teen-aged suspect only to win his job back through an appeal to the Civil Service Commission.

The revelation of Kelly’s long-ago rehiring prompted City Councilman Worth Morgan in January to launch an inquiry into civil service decisions and their impact on policing. Morgan said Friday, June 5, that his review remains underway and he could not provide details.

Impatience with such efforts has helped fuel the protests now roiling across the country along with more radical demands for police reform including broad calls to “defund the police.’’

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors said last week police budgets should be slashed, and money reinvested in healthcare, education and other initiatives that will help communities rather than punish them with over-policing.

“I think we should ultimately abolish (law enforcement),’’ Cullors told opens in a new windowNewsweek. “What we can do right now is drastically reduce law enforcement’s relationship to the community.’’

The sentiment is spreading.

A majority of the city council in opens in a new windowMinneapolis vowed Sunday to “begin the process of ending the Minneapolis Police Department.”

Numbers of individuals spoke last week before the Nashville Metro Council asking to defund the police as officials in Los Angeles and New York made moves to decrease police budgets.

Memphis Mayor Strickland’s $709 million budget that devotes roughly 40 percent to police services sailed through City Council last week with minimal dissent, yet activists backing the protests here say police spending needs to be reined in.

“They should revisit that,’’ said Abston, who says he’d like to meet with Strickland and wants “a personal, direct apology’’ for “every protester that has been arrested for just exercising their rights.’’

James Macon wants better oversight of police.

“There needs to be an outside force that is not the police themselves to investigate these matters,’’ said Macon, who heads a local group called Americans Against Police Violence.

Macon envisions something much more robust than the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board that reviews police misconduct complaints but lacks subpoena power and can only recommend actions.

He’s circulating a petition on opens in a new windowchange.org to require national, congressionally mandated reforms that would include strong citizen oversight of police.

“So, in the event that police commit a crime, particularly as it relates to police brutality or murder of a civilian, that there needs to be independent bodies that are dispatched to provide oversight into police investigations,’’ said Macon, who participated Thursday in a civil disobedience training event outside the National Civil Rights Museum.

That includes not only review of police actions but oversight of investigations in real time, he said. There would be no closed hearings.

“The media would be allowed to be participants in every single aspect of the review process,’’ he said.

That degree of transparency might be difficult to achieve. But the alternative — police departments that hide records or obstruct access through stiff fees or lengthy delays — is hardly conducive to reform, said TCOG’s Fisher.

“If police departments around the state want to truly put action behind their words about looking at use of force, then they need to make the records available for free to the public so they can look at what’s been happening,’’ Fisher said.

“It’s very frustrating because you’re trying to get to the facts. And if they’re going to hide the facts through fees and costs and delays— months sounds like — then, you know, how is that transparency? How is that progress?’’

This story first appeared at www.dailymemphian.com under exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Marc Perrusquia
Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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