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VOL. 130 | NO. 146 | Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Police Review Board With Teeth Hits Familiar Wall

By Bill Dries

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When Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton created the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board in 1994, it was under pressure from critics who said police couldn’t objectively discipline their own.

At a Monday, July 27, City Hall session, those involved in drafting an ordinance with new powers for a reconstituted Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board learned the Wharton administration is opposed to it.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

But Herenton, who had his own doubts about police objectivity, also believed the board was a hollow gesture. Its powers to investigate allegations of police misconduct would always be limited by civil service procedures, due process safeguards and the legal process in general.

Those were all factors that 21 years later led to an abrupt reversal of the momentum toward a strengthened review board. The Memphis City Council is set to vote on expanded powers and new ground rules in August.

The administration of Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. came out Monday, July 27, against any significant changes to the city ordinance that has defined and limited CLERB’s powers since its inception. For years, it has been dormant.

Word of the administration’s position came during a Monday meeting led by City Council member Wanda Halbert, who brought together the different groups involved in the CLERB remake including Memphis Police brass and the Memphis Police Association.

Demar Roberts, an administrative assistant to chief administrative officer Jack Sammons, said the administration felt “we have not allowed the current Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board ordinance to work itself out.”

Roberts added that the administration’s position is the city “should remain with the current ordinance on the books today.” That would include adding a working website for the board as well as some staff to handle day-to-day administrative work.

Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center said the position is “completely different” than what Wharton said to him in a Thursday telephone conversation.

“That phone call never happened,” Watkins said sarcastically.

During a break in the session, Roberts acknowledged the position was a change for the administration, telling Watkins, “CLERB has not been able to do their jobs.”

“Because they didn’t exist,” Watkins replied.

Watkins’ group has been among those pushing for more power for the board to investigate allegations of police misconduct over a six-year period.

“No intellectually honest person believes the administration just came to that position,” he said.

The Memphis City Council was poised to vote earlier this month on third and final reading of an ordinance that would have given the board subpoena powers as well as the ability to investigate simultaneously with police Internal Affairs.

The vote was delayed after council attorney Allan Wade advised to remove those amendments.

Wade told the council it could not transfer its subpoena power to another entity. And he said the files of an ongoing IA investigation couldn’t be turned over until its conclusion.

For council member Kemp Conrad, Wade’s legal advice – echoing Herenton’s difficulty with raising expectations of police critics – was a make or break moment.

“The most substantive changes favored by the anti-police coalition of Memphis United were deemed illegal by our counsel,” Conrad said, referring to one of the groups pushing for more power for CLERB. “Mayor Wharton was right by supporting transparency and police officers simultaneously through this practical approach outlined today.”

Halbert became the sponsor of the ordinance after Shea Flinn left the council earlier this year.

“The goal here should be to win. At the end of the day we need a strong CLERB process,” Halbert said in a July 9 session. “You can’t put another attorney in front of the council and think the council is going to ignore the opinion of its own legal representative.”

For Halbert, the process was moving too fast with amendments that appeared to have been thrown in.

This week’s committee session had a much different tone.

Between the two sessions, Darrius Stewart was shot and killed by Memphis Police Officer Connor Schilling. Wharton and Armstrong have each described the incident as a test of how the city handles a controversial police shooting in the wake of national protests, discussions and violence following similar incidents. Both have said a “transparent” process is essential.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich called in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation as an outside agency to investigate the shooting.

That immediately raised concerns about the state law that forbids the TBI from releasing any information in its investigative files even after an investigation ends.

TBI director Mark Gwyn has since said he would release some information to Weirich but he was not specific on what kind of information that would be.

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