A routine action for any city employee nearing 25 years on the job got a lot of attention last week.
Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong has put in his paperwork to retire in 2017 – three years from now – when the youngest police director to ever come from the ranks of the department will have served the city for 25 years.
Word of his enrollment in the city’s DROP plan comes at a time when how the local criminal justice system works has been under intense scrutiny from untested rape kits to calls for a revived civilian review board over police to due process reforms at Juvenile Court.
Since the position of police director was created in the 1970s, 10 men have held the job. Of those 10, the first two – Jay Hubbard and Buddy Chapman – did not come from the ranks of the Memphis Police Department.
Their appointments and the creation of the position of police director reflected the times in which they were appointed when there were valid concerns about the ability of police to deal with abuses of power from within and other misconduct.
We believe the time is again right for a police director who does not come from the ranks.
Our call may seem early. But we point out that city elections are in 2015 and police directors serve at the will and pleasure of the mayor regardless of paperwork for the DROP plan.
The police department is in need of a change in outlook that Armstrong and other police directors have been unable or unwilling to provide. There has been change but not enough.
Police investigators do not record suspect interviews so juries can see how a suspect says key admissions or defenses against charges that are transcribed or recalled by a detective later.
Despite a policy change, it is still entirely possible to be arrested for using your iPhone to record a police officer at a scene.
And the police response to a 2013 rally by the Ku Klux Klan on the steps of the Shelby County Courthouse was to seal off all auto and foot traffic in a 13-block area of Downtown because a previous police director 15 years earlier at another Klan rally there went too far in the other direction.
If a police director from the ranks is a guarantee of consistency in law enforcement and that is regarded as a good thing, there is another side to the argument too.
It means that all of the disclaimers that Armstrong made public the rape kit backlog shortly after becoming director ignore his presence as a deputy chief and deputy director during the critical years when the backlog grew.
It’s still possible, even likely, he didn’t know of the backlog.
That kind of compartmentalization makes the case stronger for a departure now from the practice of appointing a police director from the ranks.