VOL. 123 | NO. 228 | Thursday, November 20, 2008
Residency Decision Uncovers Underlying Attitudes
By Bill Dries
THEIR FIRST FIGHT: Memphis City Council members agree the Memphis police force needs to grow. But how to expand the department was the first serious debate the council had this week after taking office in January. -- PHOTO BY BILL DRIES
It may have been the most important debate the Memphis City Council has had since the group of 13 took office in January. And it may affect the way council members see each other for quite some time.
On a 6-to-7 vote along racial lines, the council this week rejected a proposed loosening of residency requirements for Memphis police officers. The resolution would have allowed the police department to hire applicants who live within 20 miles of Shelby County.
The department is currently able to hire applicants who live within Shelby County, including Memphis, under a provision that allows the council to waive the requirement that all city employees must live in Memphis. The Shelby County waiver expires in February.
Most of the citizens who spoke before the council vote, 87 in all, were in favor of hiring outside Shelby County.
Race rears its head
The crowd of several hundred filled the council chambers. Many came from the East Memphis neighborhoods along the Poplar Corridor and had turned out for a townhall meeting hosted by council member Reid Hedgepeth the night before.
Hedgepeth was the sponsor of the resolution, which included a hiring preference for Memphis applicants when it is a choice between a Memphian and an applicant from outside the city.
Hedgepeth acknowledged the racial undercurrent that is intertwined with the issue of how the police department works and how past police departments dealt with black and white citizens.
“This is 2008 and I, me personally – I was not around when many of these things happened in the past,” he said of past racial problems involving police. “It will be very obvious to me if this fails, why it failed.”
The council’s debate revealed fundamentally different outlooks that are larger than the question of how to hire more police officers. All of the council members agree on the need for more police to battle more crime.
“What I don’t understand is why is there an unspoken belief that applicants outside of Memphis, outside of Shelby County, are not going to be accepted and those who live here in Shelby County are?” asked Council member Janis Fullilove.
Council member Shea Flinn called that a “straw man argument.” More applicants from a broader area increase the total number of applicants, he argued. And a larger pool, Flinn said, means a better likelihood of finding police officers in a situation where most who apply are rejected.
“It’s a math problem,” he said before adding, “It is not enough to say, ‘I care about crime.’ Then do something about it.”
Like Flinn, Council member Jim Strickland pointed to an exodus from Memphis.
“If you want to be alone in this city, continue along the same path we’re going and you’ll be here alone,” he said. “If you don’t want policemen in your district who live outside Memphis, let them work in mine. The people who live in East Memphis and Midtown aren’t worried about people who live outside of Memphis.”
But other council members said they had just as many constituents in their districts who may not have been at Tuesday’s meeting, but were nevertheless vehemently opposed to stretching the residency requirement. Council member Harold Collins said Memphis workers who don’t live in Memphis are draining the city’s tax base as well as Memphians leaving town because of crime.
“We live in a community where we have been drained of our property taxes,” he said. “For me to give one nickel to someone who does not live in the same community that I live in is terrible.”
“They won’t like your district either,” Collins replied to Strickland. “They leave at four o’clock when the bell rings.”
Even police officers disagree on the issue.
Memphis Police Association President J.D. Sewell argued for expanding the area for job applicants.
“The taxpaying citizens are moving away,” he told the council. “Please don’t replace them with forced labor. … Good employees provide good service no matter where they live.”
But retired Memphis police Capt. Sam Williams, who is a past police union president, didn’t agree. Neither did retired police Capt. Claudette Boyd.
“If you do not have a link to your community, you don’t give from the heart,” Boyd said. “It’s just a job. This is more than a job.”
Let the squabbles begin
Council member Wanda Halbert argued that Memphians who apply for jobs as police officers are being rejected because they are being discriminated against through unfair psychiatric evaluations and ruled out for any past arrest.
“You tell me one human being sitting in this room that has been perfect … especially when silly youthful issues are continuing to be used against not all of us. Something is happening,” she said. “There is an opportunity to hire individuals in this city and it is starting to feel and look real clear that someone’s just not interested.”
Council member Bill Boyd termed Halbert’s comment “trash.”
“One of the main reasons we are not able to hire from within this pool is we are not educating our children,” he said.
Memphis police director Larry Godwin and City Human Resources director Lorene Essex told the council in executive session Tuesday that procedures for screening candidates are being reviewed to determine their fairness.
To bring the police force up to a complement of 2,500, the city recently dropped the requirement that police officers have a college education. The requirement is now a high school diploma.
This is the second time in a year that a proposal to stretch the police residency requirement has been rejected by the council. An earlier proposal by Hedgepeth was rejected early in the year shortly after nine of the 13 council members began their first term of office. It was the first real difference of opinion the new council had on an issue.