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VOL. 127 | NO. 187 | Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Armstrong Talks About Start to Police Tenure

By Bill Dries

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Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong counted it as a good weekend this month when a guns for gas program drew a larger crowd than expected and a haul of 500 guns when he and organizers had expected maybe 200 at the most.

The next day a safety event at Wolfchase Galleria drew 200 people.

Then Memphis police officer Sean McWhirter was indicted by a federal grand jury the following Wednesday on federal sex trafficking charges.

According to the indictment, McWhirter took several women to a nightclub and announced to those at the club that the women worked for him. He also allegedly met with an informant working for federal investigators while in uniform and in a patrol car to organize a meeting with the women at a hotel in Tunica County.

Armstrong tallied the impact of the charges against the gun drive and safety events and didn’t see a net gain for what he’s trying to do.

“This certainly overshadowed all of the good work we did over that weekend,” Armstrong said on The Daily News program “Behind The Headlines” on WKNO-TV.

“When I started my career 23 years ago, I really wanted to be a police officer. … Now, because of the state of the economy you have people who are choosing to get into law enforcement just because the Memphis Police Department is hiring. You don’t have the level of dedication that we once did.”

Armstrong bases that on talks he’s had with cops accused of corruption.

“We find that they really never had any intention of honoring the badge or the oath that they took,” he said. “They say, ‘I just took the job because it was available.’”

“Behind The Headlines” is hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, and can be seen on The Daily News Online, www.memphisdailynews.com.

It has been a year and a half since Armstrong succeeded Larry Godwin as Memphis Police director. Armstrong concedes that the first six months of the transition were “extremely challenging.”

At 45, he is the youngest director of the department to come out of the police ranks. And he replaced Godwin, who had been director for eight years – serving longer than any other police director during the 18-year tenure of former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

“You had a difference in my style and the previous director’s style. But I think the problem you have is when you try to compare two people to say one is better than the other,” Armstrong said of the transition that included a secretly recorded speech in which Armstrong referred to “monsters” within the department created by Godwin’s aggressive brand of policing. “We feel like we weathered the storm. There will be other storms.”

Crime in Memphis is up overall about 3 percent so far this year, according to Armstrong. He attributed two of those percentage points to memos or crime reports that were incorrectly excluded from crime statistics in previous years.

The memos written by police officers in lieu of a formal crime report that would have been tallied in one of several crime categories was an early controversy in Armstrong’s tenure. Approximately 79,000 of the memos were written by police officers in six and a half years starting in January 2006. Armstrong went public with the memos and changed the reporting rules in January.

Godwin was the originator of Blue CRUSH, the statistics-driven aggressive policing policy that contributed to a drop in crime. As that happened, Godwin had stopped most of the earlier community policing efforts. At one point late in his tenure, Godwin said that Blue CRUSH was his version of community policing.

Armstrong has kept Blue CRUSH and returned to community policing efforts in which officers who work in crime prevention programs are a visible daily presence in some areas. But he doesn’t call it a shift from Godwin’s philosophy.

“I want it very clear that I don’t think of it as a shift,” he said as he explained the addition of community policing to Blue CRUSH efforts. “We could go into these neighborhoods and not have the repetitive cycle of going in and flooding the neighborhoods, leaving, watching the uptick again. … Could we stop the repetitive cycle if we went into these areas and put in the resources?”

The question will be answered in two communities – one in North Memphis and the other in South Memphis where statistics are being watched closely.

“We’ve seen a tremendous reduction in gun violence so far,” Armstrong said. “Now, it’s early. … We’re probably going to have at least a year before we get some kind of baseline.”

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