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VOL. 130 | NO. 132 | Thursday, July 9, 2015

Civilian Review Board Debate Flares Before Council Delay

By Bill Dries

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After years of give and take, negotiations over legal terms and the rise of police misconduct as a national issue, it appeared the Memphis City Council was ready Tuesday, July 7, to take a final vote on new rules for the long-dormant Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.

Protesters outside City Hall Tuesday, July 7, in support of a proposed move to reactivate and empower Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

The appointed board investigates allegations of police misconduct. But since its creation in the 1990s, the board has had little real power to compel police to cooperate or to get the kind of testimony or documents necessary to mount a credible investigation.

After a City Hall debate Tuesday featuring more than a dozen citizens speaking and more than 100 in the audience, the council again delayed a final vote on the ordinance.

The delay came after some significant last-minute changes in two key provisions that came on the advice of council attorney Allan Wade.

The original proposal would have given the board subpoena power in conducting its investigations. But Wade said the council cannot give its subpoena power in the city charter to another organization. Instead the amendment says city employees must cooperate with an investigation by the board in producing documents and in testifying.

The review board could investigate an allegation at the same time police internal affairs looks into it rather than waiting for the internal investigation to be completed. However, internal affairs could not turn over its records until it has finished its investigation. The amendment says police internal investigators cannot unreasonably delay saying their investigation is complete.

Memphis Police Association vice president Essica Littlejohn said the union is opposed to the new powers for the review board.

“We all want the same thing,” she said. “But the majority – 99 percent – of the men and women who serve this community are not dirty cops. We all have put our life on the line for this city. For some citizens to doubt that is discouraging.”

She urged the council to give body cameras and patrol car cameras, both scheduled to come on line in September, a chance to work.

“You are going to violate the rights of the officers,” she added.

Littlejohn also said the controversial and sometimes deadly police actions that have sparked riots and protests in other American cities are foreign to Memphis.

“I understand the climate in the country,” she told the council. “That hasn’t been happening in Memphis.”

Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, said the drive to give the review board teeth in terms of its powers began after the February 2008 Memphis police beating of Dewana Johnson in the booking area of the Criminal Justice Center while she was handcuffed.

The drive intensified after some Mid-South Peace and Justice Center members were detained by police for trying to record video of Memphis police officers.

“If this was just a question of bad apples and not a systemic problem, you would have run out of cops to indict by now,” Watkins said, pointing to dozens of Memphis police officers indicted on misconduct charges over several years, including 20 cops in one year. “This doesn’t mean all police officers are bad. And the fact that people keep bringing that up is a dodge. A competent civilian law enforcement review board could stop these things from happening.”

Critics of the review board included some of those opposed to changes in benefits for city employees including police and firefighters.

“I’ve done my homework on them,” Fran Triplett said of the backers of the review board. “Some of them have been arrested. They want police to trust them, but they don’t trust police.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t live in Mayberry,” said Sherry Hopper. “We need our police officers. They are pivotal to our survival.”

The council appeared poised to vote on the amended ordinance a third and final time.

But Memphis Police deputy director Anthony Berryhill told the council that police brass wanted a two-week delay to review the proposed amendments before taking their position on the ordinance.

The council approved the delay.

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