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VOL. 130 | NO. 152 | Thursday, August 6, 2015

Memphis Police Oversight Board Hits Another Snag

By Bill Dries

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After numerous delays and lots of stops and starts, proposed new rules for the city’s Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board hit another roadblock Tuesday, Aug. 4, but not before a vigorous Memphis City Council debate.

Before Tuesday’s city council session, several groups rallied outside City Hall, many of them joining for a prayer circle to remember slain police officer Sean Bolton.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

It’s not the first council debate this year on new powers for the body that would investigate allegations of police misconduct. But it was the first debate this year on the question of whether such a body should have those powers.

The council debate also was about timing. Two police-involved shootings – one in which a police officer fatally shot a car passenger and one in which a police officer was fatally shot by an alleged car passenger – have occurred in Memphis in a two-week period.

City leaders have said the national environment of questions, debates and protests on all sides of the matter of how police use force as a backdrop for the Memphis incidents cannot be ignored.

The council delayed a final vote on the CLERB ordinance Tuesday until after the October city elections.

“I just don’t think it’s appropriate for us to be judging police oversight at this time,” Memphis police director Toney Armstrong told the council, referring to last week’s death of police officer Sean Bolton, who was killed in the line of duty. Bolton’s funeral is Thursday, Aug. 6.

With that, council member Kemp Conrad, the most vocal opponent of the reconstructed review board, moved to delay the final vote on the ordinance until November.

“What does Thursday have to do with November?” asked council member Wanda Halbert, who sponsored the ordinance. The council voted down several attempts to move the vote to a council session before the October elections. The votes were close.

“This whole process has really been led by people who don’t like the police and have an anti-police agenda pure and simple,” Conrad said earlier, showing social media posts from critics of police conduct who back the ordinance. “They can’t follow the rules because they are lawbreakers themselves.”

And he accused backers of the ordinance of saying nothing – or “radio silence” – on Bolton’s death.

“This is now about individuals,” Halbert countered. “It is embarrassing. This was a lot of hard work.”

“You can’t separate the message from the messengers,” Conrad countered.

Citizens gather outside City Hall Tuesday to remember Sean Bolton, whose death was a factor in a delaying on a final CLERB vote.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Conrad also said the rising homicide rates in other large cities are “because the political leadership is not standing up for police officers.”

“I think a vote for this ordinance tonight would put Memphis on the same course,” he added.

Council member Alan Crone disagreed, citing Mayor A C Wharton Jr.’s earlier support of the ordinance just last week.

“If your aim for supporting this is to undermine the police department, then you’ve utterly failed,” Crone said. “It strengthens police officers because none of us enjoy having our actions second-guessed or Monday morning quarterbacked in the environment of a courtroom or a hearing. But having said that, sometimes that’s the most powerful place to be if you are an innocent person charged with something.”

Crone said when officers accused of misconduct are investigated by police internal affairs “it goes into kind of black hole.”

“If they are exonerated by the department, there’s this notion that it was swept under the rug and that they’ve really not been exonerated at all, just protected,” he added.

Mid-South Peace and Justice Center director Brad Watkins, who was among supporters of the ordinance, called Tuesday’s delay “political theater that has nothing to do with the death of the officer.”

Meanwhile, there appeared to be a new difference of opinion within the Wharton administration about the ordinance.

Wharton said last week that he supported the changes to the review board giving it more power to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Armstrong was at the same meeting where Wharton said he supported the changes.

But in an email to Conrad this week in which Conrad specifically asked Armstrong his opinion, Armstrong indicated he didn’t approve of it and that it would hurt public safety and harm officer morale.

Before Wharton himself said that he supported the ordinance, an aide to chief administrative officer Jack Sammons told those drafting the ordinance that the administration was against any change to the existing ordinance.

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