Commissioners to Talk Consolidation Today

By Bill Dries

BUT ONLY IF IT'S HIM: "I am not philosophically opposed to law enforcement consolidation," Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell said earlier this month. But Luttrell was quick to add that any merger of his department with the Memphis Police Department must leave the sheriff in charge. -- Photo By Bill Dries

It seems that the job of Shelby County sheriff is destined to change. One idea wanes as another surfaces in a political hothouse sprouting a bumper crop of consolidation possibilities.

Later today the Shelby County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to talk about the idea of having the sheriff run the County Corrections Center. The East Memphis prison is now run as part of county government's Division of Corrections, which has a director appointed by and reporting to County Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

It is the latest idea for changing the job description of the sheriff's office, which is an elected office each county must have according to terms of the Tennessee Constitution. But a recent Tennessee Supreme Court ruling in a Knoxville case has opened the door to changing that or possibly even doing away with the office as it exists today. The court ruled the Sheriff's office and four other constitutional countywide elected positions do not necessarily have to exist because of the way the Knox County home rule charter is written. Shelby County government has the same kind of home rule charter.

Toward merging

That prompted the continuing look at a possible consolidation of the Shelby County Sheriff's Department and the Memphis Police Department. An ad hoc county committee recommended in January taking a next step toward such a merger.

But the next step - the appointment of a Public Safety Commission to work on interlocal agreements between the two departments - hit a snag when commissioners voted it down.

The Public Safety Commission was resurrected this month after some changes in its structure. It was enough to win approval. The City Council is still to vote on the resolution.

The commission will be a seven-member body that includes appointees by the Shelby County Sheriff's Deputies Association and the Memphis Police Association, the two unions representing rank-and-file officers. Both unions have gone on record against an overall merger of the two departments. Those appointees will join nominees of Wharton and Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton.

The public safety group also will be reviewed after three years to determine if it should be renewed. It would take a vote by the County Commission to keep the group going after the three years are up.

"Every reference to the merger of the two departments has been taken out of this," said Commissioner Mike Carpenter as he walked through the changes earlier this month.

Carpenter has been the most vocal advocate of at least considering a total merger. But the new appointed body will explore areas of functional consolidation for now that stop short of a full on merger of the departments.

Who's the boss?

Commissioner Wyatt Bunker pushed for two representatives of the county's suburban municipalities but came up short of the necessary votes for the amendment. He argued even the suburban cities with their own police departments still rely on the Sheriff's Department for some police responsibilities.

Bunker and the mayors of those cities have complained that they've been left out of direct representation as the talks have gone from ad hoc committee to Public Safety Commission.

Carpenter countered that the suburban cities are represented on the County Commission.

"Any local agreements that might be adopted would have to come back to us and to the council," Carpenter said. "Certainly, the sheriff at this point still has veto power - for lack of a better way to put it. He certainly has to agree to it."

And Sheriff Mark Luttrell told the Memphis Rotary Club earlier this month that he won't agree to it unless it comes under the office of sheriff.

"I am not philosophically opposed to law enforcement consolidation," Luttrell said. "Under our current system of governance, if you're going to consolidate law enforcement, it needs to be consolidated under the sheriff. The sheriff is the law enforcement officer that is accountable to all the citizens of Shelby County. If you were to consolidate under the city of Memphis ... all of those people who live outside the city of Memphis would not have any political input into how law enforcement is administered."

Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin has said he would favor a law enforcement merger but not if all of the functions are put under the sheriff.