A turbulent week at the Criminal Justice Center for the Memphis Police Department is the lead-in for a critical week at City Hall in the unfunded pension liability discussion.
Leaders of the Memphis Police Association and other municipal unions will be part of the discussions this week on the size of that unfunded liability and what steps the city should take to put city finances on a more sustainable basis.
But two days of back and forth last week between Police director Toney Armstrong and Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams have raised questions about how much of the turbulence is a disagreement between the top cop and the union, and how much is a disagreement between City Hall and Armstrong.
The direct catalyst seems to have been Williams’ statement that crime in Memphis has not been reduced. For that statement, Armstrong first said he was considering filing administrative charges against Williams.
Armstrong then ordered the top three leaders of the police union, including Williams, back on the job as uniformed police officers.
City Chief Administrative Officer George Little said Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. backed Armstrong’s decision on the return to duty.
“This move is actually only bringing the police association leaders in line with the way other union leaders – those who are paid city employees – work on their city jobs on city time and perform their union duties on their own time or with approved leave,” Little said in a written statement.
While Little did not address the difference of opinion over whether crime in Memphis is decreasing, he said Armstrong had “demonstrated a tremendous amount of forbearance on this matter.”
Williams’ belief that crime may not be decreasing in Memphis is mild compared to some other statements the union leader has made. Under his leadership, the union has bought billboard ads saying the city isn’t safe and hosted a job fair for police officers to seek jobs in other cities.
But just as suddenly as the difference between Armstrong and Williams escalated, it subsided with Armstrong announcing late Friday that Williams and the other union leaders would not be sent back to day-to-day police duties.
There is a tension between police union leadership and the police director that goes back at least to Larry Godwin’s tenure as police director, just before Armstrong was appointed by Wharton.
Godwin repeatedly cited then-MPA President J.D. Sewell for public statements Sewell made.
Sewell became leader of the union after Godwin refused to recognize Gene Hulley as the elected president of the organization because Hulley was a lieutenant. Since Hulley was a lieutenant, Godwin contended successfully that Sewell was management and that his duties as a representative of rank-and-file officers was in conflict with the duties of his police rank. In order to serve as head of the union, Godwin said Hulley needed permission of the police director, and Godwin would not give his permission.
Sewell, who had been vice president, became president of the Memphis Police Association as a result.
But as Godwin was ending his tenure as police director, Sewell was suspended by the union board for not being aggressive enough as city leaders explored layoffs and other budget-tightening measures, including a 4.6 percent pay cut.
Williams, who had been the union’s vice president, eventually became its president.
Wharton and Armstrong differed publicly in September 2012 about the state of the police department.
It followed the shooting of a 15-year-old boy by an off-duty Memphis police officer that followed a string of police corruption cases.
“Not passing judgment, but obviously something isn’t working correctly,” Wharton said as Armstrong stood next to him. “It’s not a matter of frustration. It’s just an objective statement.”
“It’s disappointing to me for the mayor to perceive the department being in an unacceptable state,” Armstrong replied at the same press conference.
Williams put the union’s leadership squarely in Armstrong’s corner in the dispute, which was also short-lived.
He said Wharton’s treatment of Armstrong was “humiliating,” and he called for a “hands-off” approach by Wharton toward Armstrong.
“He hasn’t really been given the opportunity to be police director,” Williams said at the time. “He has not done anything that has indicated he can’t be trusted.”
Wharton has since said he and Armstrong have disagreed in the past and that the differences are part and parcel of constructive discussions within the administration.