The Memphis City Council on Tuesday, May 6, got its first detailed look at the Memphis Police Department’s budget proposal, which was followed by the council starting the process of bringing back to life the Police Civilian Review Board. That would begin with a series of community meetings and recommendations from a citizens group in August.
The police budget, as expected, included $5 million in funding for a new police recruit class even as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has talked of “efficiencies” in the department recommended by the city’s financial consultant, Public Finance Management.
Those efficiencies could include increased use of civilians for some law enforcement functions as well as technology that allows the department to police with fewer uniformed officers or devote more police to other tasks.
The council’s review of division budgets so far is preliminary. A budget committee wrap-up later will begin the process of firm recommendations to the full council for a vote in June for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The police department budget is the largest of any city government division.
Meanwhile, Police Director Toney Armstrong has been noncommittal to the idea of reanimating the police review board, which still exists though Wharton hasn’t appointed new members since he became mayor.
The board was formed in the 1990s with the grudging acceptance of then-Mayor Willie Herenton after the City Council pushed the issue. Herenton argued that the board had no real power and that the lack of power would ultimately create more frustration for citizens who pursued complaints against police through the commission instead of directly through the police.
The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center pushed for a revival of the board after police internal affairs dismissed its complaints of police harassment at Manna House, a hospitality house for the homeless, and arrests of citizens for recording police making another arrest.
From there, Peace and Justice Center Director Brad Watkins said his attempts to find out the last time the review board met have been stonewalled.
“On (April 15) I applied for an open records request to get the minutes … just so I could establish when it stopped meeting,” he said. “The lies have to stop, and we have to have real transparency.”
Watkins faulted Wharton for repeatedly promising to make appointments to the review board but not doing so.
Council member Janis Fullilove sponsored the resolution paving the way for the return of the review board but wanted to delay a vote on it Tuesday to consult with Armstrong.
Council member Shea Flinn questioned why the council needed Armstrong’s consent to pass the resolution, and Fullilove quickly dropped her call for a delay.
Flinn served on the review board in 2008 and complained of its “limited power” to pursue complaints or investigate. The investigations by the review board couldn’t begin until police completed their investigation, and the board’s powers were limited by the civil service process for police officers accused of misconduct.
Flinn urged any study group to consider changing the powers of the board if it is reconstituted.
“That was the problem with the other was no teeth,” he said. “Since the dawn of democracy and Plato, the big question is who watches the watchman.”