Police Corruption Sparks Familiar Political Debate

By Bill Dries

When he was Shelby County mayor, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. used to refer to civil service employees he encountered as “we be’s”

“We be here before you got here and we be here after you are gone,” was his explanation for the term, a line that got a good laugh as he explained some of the limitations on changes he wanted to make in local government.

But as Wharton’s surprising City Hall press conference last week demonstrated, he no longer thinks it is funny, especially when police officers are accused not just of violating city policies but of breaking the law.

A long line of Memphis police directors have been open in saying there are a certain number of officers on the force who are corrupt from the day they take the oath of office. And it is part of the nature of a police force as well as the temptation that comes with the power given those who take the oath, wear a badge and carry a gun.

When the number of allegedly corrupt officers prosecuted goes up, the question is always this: Are there more corrupt police officers than there were before or are more corrupt police officers being caught?

Armstrong’s predecessor, Larry Godwin, fielded the question frequently as the federal “Tarnished Blue” investigations exposed a wide range of police corruption. It included cops in the Beale Street entertainment district robbing drug dealers, police officers selling drugs while in uniform and driving patrol cars, and officers participating in prostitution operations as well as drug organizations.

Godwin took the position that the cases showed he had a zero tolerance policy for such corruption.

Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong is finding that statement to be a harder sell with Wharton. And Wharton is clearly no fan of the procedures that critics contend amounts to preferential treatment when police officers are being investigated but haven’t been charged – at least not initially. Neither is Armstrong who has said, nevertheless, that the conditions remain in place and have to be followed.

The Memphis Police Association contends it isn’t preferential treatment and that media coverage of a police shooting or police corruption can often mean no way back for an officer even if they are cleared.

“We don’t condone any wrongdoing. That’s not what we do,” said police union president Michael Williams. “We are here to try to ensure that officers are treated fairly – that they have due process.”

Williams’ tally of police corruption charges is that there have been more cases under Armstrong than Godwin. And it has been the source of some friction between the union and Armstrong.

“We’ve been into it with the director because we’ve had more officers that have been charged under his leadership than the previous leadership,” Williams said. “We’re not some small town. So you are going to have individuals who get through the cracks. We’re going to have individuals who do things. … The media plays a major role in this because we are newsworthy. … The same thing happens at FedEx, happens at Plough, happens at any major company. But you are not going to hear about that.”

The police union’s role in an incident like the death of 15-year-old Justin Thompson in a police shooting often begins with administrative charges against the officer.

“We don’t get involved into any of these matters until they become administrative,” Williams said. “When they are being investigated we cannot get involved in investigations until it comes to a hearing for administrative purposes. Then that’s when we get involved.”

That wasn’t always the case. There was a time when union representatives were present at shooting scenes not only to represent the officer but also to be there when investigators interviewed witnesses to the shootings.

That was until Police Director Walter Winfrey moved in 1994 to suspend police union president Bryant Jennings and vice president Ernie Lancaster. They were accused of coaching officers on what to say in such investigations. Both were reinstated.

Williams is critical of Wharton for being too much of a presence on police scenes.

“You had the mayor run down there,” Williams said of Wharton’s presence last year during the immediate aftermath of the shooting at a Downtown hotel that killed Memphis Police Officer Timothy Warren. “He wants to get on camera. … Allow the director to build a trust with the community so he can effectively function as police director.”

But for some time, the tradition when a police officer is shot is that the mayor and police director are present at the Regional Medical Center at Memphis and both usually make the announcement of the officer’s condition. That’s been the case since before Wharton was mayor or Armstrong was police director.