The fatal shooting of a 15-year-old boy by an off-duty Memphis police officer who claims he was being robbed has become the backdrop for a politically saturated controversy over what it says about the way the Memphis Police Department is run.
The controversy broadened Tuesday, Sept. 25, when Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. announced the shooting of Justin Thompson by officer Terrance Shaw near Thompson’s home Monday evening would be investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.
And Wharton chafed at police policies that at that point forbade him or Police Director Toney Armstrong from even revealing Shaw’s name, which was released the next day by state investigators.
Wharton also said the incident along with several recent police corruption cases were “unacceptable.” And Wharton plans to overhaul police policies as well as similar policies in other city departments using a panel of outside experts.
“Not passing judgment, but obviously something isn’t working correctly,” Wharton said Tuesday as Armstrong stood at his side. “It’s not a matter of frustration. It’s just an objective statement.”
Armstrong didn’t agree when asked just moments later, with the mayor still present.
“It’s disappointing to me for the mayor to perceive the department being in an unacceptable state,” he said.
Armstrong said Wednesday after a closed-door meeting with Wharton and county Chief Administrative Officer George Little that he will remain as police director and feels no pressure to quit. He also confirmed that he and Wharton do not agree on whether the misconduct cases indicate a larger institutional problem he has failed to handle or are isolated instances he is managing as well as can be expected.
But Armstrong, speaking Friday on the WKNO television program “Behind The Headlines,” acknowledged some concerns about what may be causing the incidents and allegations.
“Because of the state of the economy, you have people who are choosing to get into law enforcement just because the Memphis Police Department is hiring,” he said. “You don’t have the level of dedication that we once did.”
Armstrong also cited rules and regulations, union agreements and due process requirements in the handling of misconduct and corruption investigations that prevent him from at least suspending accused officers without pay. And he talked of how it can take years to see proof of whether any particular police director’s policies are working.
As Wharton, Armstrong and Little were meeting Wednesday, Memphis Police Association leaders and members were rallying behind Armstrong and against Wharton.
Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, said that Armstrong – director of police for a year and a half – “hasn’t really been given the opportunity to be the police director” by Wharton.
“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.”
But Williams said the criticism Tuesday from Wharton was “humiliating.”
“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 communication between the officer and the teenager,” according to Wednesday’s statement from City Hall.