Police Union Slams Wharton in Armstrong Dispute

By Bill Dries

A fatal police shooting Monday evening in Wooddale is turning into a question about whether Toney Armstrong will remain as Memphis Police Director.

Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, said Wednesday, Sept. 26, that Armstrong – director of police for a year and a half – “hasn’t really been given the opportunity to be the police director” by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

“I think he is kind of teetering on whether he wants to keep this job or not because of the fact he has not been allowed to perform the job without city administration always having their hands in it,” Williams said. “He has not done anything that has indicated he can’t be trusted.”

Three hours later, Wharton issued a written statement expressing his confidence in Armstrong "to keep our streets safe, to continue decreasing crime rates in Memphis and to get the job done."

"Last year, I chose Director Armstrong to lead this department," Wharton continued. "I knew he was an excellent choice then and I know he is an excellent choice now."

The statement of support for Armstrong by the police union follows a City Hall press conference Tuesday afternoon in which Wharton announced he was turning the Monday shooting of 15-year-old Justin Thompson by off-duty Memphis Police Officer Terrance Shaw over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The first act by state investigators Wednesday was to release Shaw’s name, something Memphis police brass routinely withhold along with other basic information citing policies about not releasing information on ongoing investigations.

Wharton, with Armstrong standing by him at the Tuesday press conference, said he wasn’t happy with that and other police policies and the direction of the department. But he didn’t limit his criticism just to the police department. Wharton also said he referred the investigation to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation because of information he had about the Thompson shooting but couldn’t reveal without violating existing policies.

“He was humiliated yesterday,” Williams said of Armstrong.

“Allow this director with hands off the ability to be able to run this department without interference from those who don’t know how to fight crime,” Williams said, referring to Wharton’s background as Shelby County Public Defender before becoming Shelby County mayor and then Memphis mayor. “The mayor comes to this with a public defender mentality. He is used to defending individuals that have committed crimes. We are used to going after the bad guys. You don’t need to be mixing the two.”

Meanwhile, Wharton offered more details in his Wednesday statement of what Shaw may have told investigators. Wharton said Shaw was "the apparent victim of a robbery attempt" that ended with Thompson's shooting.

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe also includes examining "whether there was any prior communications between the officer and the teenager" according to Wednesday's statement from City Hall.

Williams said the union’s stand and the rapidly evolving political situation is not about the police shooting. He also repeatedly said, when asked about the incident, that the union was not condoning any wrongdoing that may or may not have happened.

“I definitely believe it’s a culmination of a series of events,” Williams said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to back up out of anything. I think anybody that has done any wrongdoing, let the investigation occur. If they are wrong hold them accountable and treat them like you would any other citizen. We’re not saying we want special treatment.”

At the end of the press conference, the union passed out hard copies of reprints from Thompson’s Facebook page, which included some gang references.

Just minutes before the police union press conference, Memphis City Council member Janis Fullilove was also critical of Wharton and expressed support for Armstrong.

Wharton said Wednesday afternoon that the outside investigation by the state was Armstrong's decision.