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VOL. 130 | NO. 4 | Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Funeral Services Set for Former Police Director

By Bill Dries

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Walter Winfrey was part of a wave of Memphis Police officers who got their badges and hit the streets of Memphis in 1968.

Walter Winfrey, who died over the New Year’s weekend, was Memphis police director from 1994 to 1999 and a cop for more than 30 years.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

By the time he died over the long New Year’s weekend at the age of 70, some of the issues surrounding policing in big cities from that turbulent era had returned to the local and national political discussion about crime, punishment and justice.

Winfrey’s life in, at the top of and away from the police ranks reflected numerous changes and shifts.

Memorial services for Winfrey, who retired as Memphis Police director in 1999, are Wednesday, Jan. 7, from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at N.J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, with funeral services following on Thursday, Jan. 8, at 12:30 p.m. at Hill Chapel Baptist Church.

When Winfrey came out of the police academy in 1968, black and white police officers in Memphis had been riding together as multiracial partners for only two years, even though African-Americans had been on the police force continuously for 20 years at that point.

The racial tension in the ranks reflected the tension in the larger city itself in the year of the sanitation workers strike when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis and was killed.

Crime was an issue, but the relationship of police as a force – black and white – to a city that remained racially segregated by practice and custom but no longer by law was a bigger issue.


And it would remain the more dominant issue, not only in Memphis but in most major American cities, for the early part of Winfrey’s career.

By the mid-1970s, another box had been added at the very top of the police department management chart – police director. And the fact that the first two Memphis police directors were civilians who did not come from the ranks of the department was a reflection of the city’s own struggle with police community relations.

The men outside the force and from within who have held the office over the last 40 years have all had to deal with relations within the ranks. And many of those distinct and formidable challenges have taken place out of the public eye. The glaring exception was the 1978 Memphis police strike, which was a landmark in the careers of those like Winfrey who came on the force 10 years earlier.

The impact of what happens within the ranks and its unique politics has endured even as the issue of police community relations began to take a back seat. Political calls to get tough on crime in a city with a long history of violence began to gain and hold political traction with the rise of crack cocaine in the mid-1980s, and it continued through the department’s current use, starting in 2006, of the Blue CRUSH program – concentrating “boots on the ground” at statistical crime hot spots.

As he rose in the ranks, Winfrey worked in and then headed the internal affairs bureau, investigating allegations of police misconduct and corruption.

He became Memphis Police director abruptly in 1994 when then-Mayor Willie Herenton fired Director Melvin Burgess and deputy police director Eddie Adair.

Herenton’s decision, which came about two years after Burgess was one of the first division director changes Herenton made when he became mayor, was an indication of another political change.

For decades, past mayors had paid homage to the concept that a police chief, and then a police director, would be free from political considerations and political pressure from the mayor. They would have a free hand to do what they needed to do.

It wasn’t true, based on numerous discussions with past City Hall occupants from the safety of years out of the political fray.

Herenton sacked Burgess because he thought Burgess should fire a police officer who pepper-sprayed two other officers at a home burglary scene. Burgess started the process, which gave the officer the right to an appeal to the city’s civil service board. Herenton wanted the officer out then and there.

But Herenton also backed Winfrey, including his handling of a 1998 Ku Klux Klan rally at the Shelby County Courthouse that ended violently.

Winfrey left on his own terms in 1999 after 31 years on the force, the second of six police directors Herenton would appoint during his 17 years as mayor.

Winfrey was the first to serve under a new political reality.

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