Armstrong Ponders Mayoral Transition

By Bill Dries

When outgoing Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said last week that Memphis Police Department director Toney Armstrong plans to retire at year’s end, what followed was the best representation of the off-kilter relationship between the mayor’s office and police brass.



Armstrong, head of the city’s largest division in terms of budget and employees, didn’t comment immediately. When he did, hours later, Armstrong said the word from Wharton was “premature.”

Armstrong, who prior to the election had announced his intent to retire in 2017, said Friday, Oct. 30, he would stay on, if needed, to assist the incoming administration of Jim Strickland, who becomes mayor Jan. 1.

Strickland, who has two months to make what is arguably his most important appointment, said in a written statement Friday that he appreciated Armstrong and his “service and dedication to our city.”

“I am committed to finding a police director who can continue to lead our city’s police efforts with the dignity and integrity that director Armstrong portrayed,” he added.

“That’s between mayor Wharton and director Armstrong,” Strickland said Monday, Nov. 2, when asked about the conflicting word last week. “Mayor Wharton had told me that director Armstrong would leave on Dec. 31. Several hours later, director Armstrong said he would stay as long as we needed.”

Armstrong told the Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission Thursday, Oct. 29, that cuts in city employee benefits in the last two budget seasons have dropped the size of the police force to critical levels.

He said the department faces a “logistical nightmare.”

Armstrong said the benefits changes also were a factor in his decision to enter into the deferred retirement program.

The comments were the most specific Armstrong has been on the health insurance and pension benefits cuts that Wharton proposed and Strickland supported and helped amend.

Both acknowledged during the campaign that the benefits cuts have been a factor in the police complement dropping to just more than 2,000 officers. But both also have said the cuts were necessary and can be overcome to replenish police ranks.

Armstrong has continually insisted he will speak his mind on the topic.

“I am not a politician,” he told a 2013 Whitehaven town hall meeting called to address rumors he and Wharton would close the Raines Station police precinct. “I’m never coming to you asking for your vote. … Every time I come before you, I will tell you the truth.”

Both he and Wharton have over the last six years responded to critical questions with different answers and then left it to the Memphis City Council to reconcile the difference, all while insisting they are in complete agreement.

Council members, most vocally Janis Fullilove, didn’t let the differences go unnoticed. Fullilove repeatedly called on Armstrong to speak his mind, and other council members wondered aloud what the administration’s position was.

In the last weeks of the mayoral race, Wharton began pledging he would reappoint Armstrong if he won re-election. And he attempted to make it a litmus test of his challengers.

Wharton specifically allied himself with Armstrong’s decidedly middle-of-the-road take on the Black Lives Matter movement and the city’s recent mix of officer-involved shooting incidents.

Armstrong said the local movement made valid points about police conduct. He also said at the funeral of officer Sean Bolton, who died in a traffic stop: “All lives matter.”

Armstrong’s influence was key in the city council’s decision to delay a vote on a reconstituted Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board until after the Oct. 8 elections.

The July fatal shooting of Darrius Stewart by Memphis Police officer Connor Schilling is still being investigated by the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office. There’s still no word on what was in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s 600-page report on the incident.

Stewart’s death prompted Wharton to speculate about some kind of policy for how police handle auto passengers during traffic stop. That speculation ended abruptly with Bolton’s death.

Armstrong signed onto an agreement in October, with District Attorney General Amy Weirich and Sheriff Bill Oldham, to automatically hand over investigation of all fatal police encounters, as well as deaths in custody, to the TBI.

All three said the agreement will lead to greater transparency despite the silence in the Stewart case as well as a state law that bars the release of information from a TBI investigation without a court order.

A proposal to make the agreement a state law has drawn criticism from police chiefs in Nashville and Knoxville.

Meanwhile, Armstrong has yet to offer a definitive version of the fatal shooting of police officer Terrence Olridge, who was shot to death in October by Lorenzo Clark.

Olridge was the second police officer to die violently in a 10-week period.

Clark faces state and federal charges of being a felon in possession of a gun in what police have described as a shootout between the two neighbors. Armstrong has only said that Olridge did not die in the line of duty and that there isn’t enough proof to charge Clark with the death of the police officer.