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VOL. 9 | NO. 6 | Saturday, February 6, 2016

New Brass

The Memphis Police Department faces pivotal leadership shift

By Bill Dries

Print | Front Page | Email this story | Email reporter | Comments ()

Just days before Toney Armstrong was off the city payroll, his successor as interim director of the Memphis Police Department, Michael Rallings, was getting used to the attention and ring kissing that comes with being the city’s top cop.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“No, no, not yet,” Rallings said after being addressed as director. “I’m still deputy chief until Feb. 1.”

By then, Rallings was informally introducing his command staff. And the introductions promise to keep coming, with two more deputy chiefs scheduled to retire during his expected four- to eight-month tenure.

That’s how long Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland estimates a national search for a new police director will take.


Rallings could apply. There are certain to be several officers from the ranks who apply.

But the national search is notable for the likelihood that for the first time in more than 30 years, someone from outside the ranks could lead the MPD.

Not since Buddy Chapman left as director in the early 1980s has that been the case.

It’s been even longer since someone from outside Shelby County led the department. That was the case with Jay Hubbard, who was a retired Marine when he came to Memphis in 1972 to become the first Memphis Police director.

Before Hubbard’s appointment, the city had a public safety commissioner and a police chief, the latter of whom always came from the ranks. Though the director position has always been open to civilians, Hubbard and Chapman are the only two who have held the post in its 43-year history.

‘We need the best person for the job’

Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, who selected five police directors in his 17 years as mayor, talked of a national search several times, but he always ended up going with the interim police director he selected at the process outset.

Memphis Police Association president Mike Williams says that’s not an accident or the result of political lethargy.

“They’ve tried it before, and it was unsuccessful,” he said of going outside the ranks. “Someone coming from the outside and with the structure of the police department, it’s not like you can bring your own staff in with you. So, you are still going to be left with the staff that’s already here. That’s makes for a very interesting combination.”

Williams said he thinks the new police director should come from the ranks of the department. But he questions who from outside would take on the appointed position.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I think it’s going to be hard to get somebody to come in here without a contract,” he said. “They are walking into a powder keg. Why would you want to accept that now knowing what your stability is?”

Brad Watkins, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, which has been aggressive and vocal in pushing for police policy changes, thinks someone from the outside is precisely what the department needs.

“You get the chance to bring in new ideas, new approaches into the internal culture of the Memphis Police Department,” Watkins said. “We are very much encouraged by the idea of someone from outside that culture who is going to have to reach out to the community and have to navigate the internal dynamics of the department to change that culture to one that works better for the public and for the officers on the street themselves.”

Somewhere in the middle is Memphis City Council chairman Kemp Conrad, who will be one of 13 votes on the confirmation of the new director.

Conrad says Strickland’s appointment is “probably the most important staffing decision the mayor will make.”

“I think it’s really smart to look outside,” he added. “Certainly we have a lot of talent internally as well. I’m not predisposed to either one.”

Council member Worth Morgan, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, agrees.

“It may be from Memphis or it may be from outside,” he said. “But we have a duty and responsibility to at least look everywhere. … We need the best person for the job. We owe it to the community to look everywhere and search everywhere.”

But in the interim, Rallings will make his imprint on a department whose upper ranks are thinning rapidly with retirements.

Three of the six positions below director on the MPD management chart were filled this month by Rallings, including his position as deputy chief of one of the city’s two uniform patrol districts. Two of the remaining three deputy chiefs, Jim Harvey and Clete Knight, are set to retire in the coming months, likely before Strickland selects the permanent police director.

“So now you’re changing the leadership in some of the most trying times we have,” Williams said.

Is 2,400 the magic number?

Morgan wants to begin some changes before the permanent police director is chosen, including an attempt to verify how quickly the Memphis Police Department’s ranks can grow from the current 2,000 officers to a force of 2,400.

“Even as we hire officers, it may not put more boots on the ground immediately,” Morgan said. “We need to find that tipping point number. … When do we actually start seeing more officers on the ground? …

“That gap is something we have to close and hold the line as quickly as we can.”

But there is certain to be a debate about whether an increase in the size of the force is necessary. Strickland ran on a pledge of upping the force to 2,400, and the three other major candidates for mayor in 2015 agreed.

But at the first city council session of 2016, new councilman Martavius Jones questioned the need, citing a drop in city crime, according to overall statistics for 2015.

Strickland disputes that, and a key part of his campaign was saying crime and violence in the city is on the rise.

Watkins says the 2,400 goal is “just a complete political football” and “a case of budgetary greed.”

“I don’t believe we necessarily need 2,400 officers,” he said. “I believe we need more effective solutions and more effective interaction between law enforcement and the citizenry. I would like to see scientific data that shows 2,400 officers are going to get us the results that people are promising.”

Community, CRUSH or a combo?

Watkins believes the way forward is choosing community policing over the Blue CRUSH crackdowns, which are based on statistical crime hot spots.

(Memphis News File/Lance Murphey)

He and Williams are not that far apart in that regard.

Williams said both approaches are needed.

“Blue CRUSH is not the answer. Blue CRUSH is part of the answer,” he said. “But it has to be done in conjunction with police and interacting with the community. If not, then they are going to think you are going to come in with a lock-them-up attitude.”

Conrad says the city needs both community policing and Blue CRUSH in a “good balance” with more innovation.

“We do things the way they’ve always been done,” he said. “It seems to me there is a lot of room for more innovation.”

Williams and Watkins view Armstrong as a police director with good intentions and a realization that times have changed. But they each said Armstrong’s ambitions ultimately came up short. They differ on the specific causes.

“My personal opinion is Armstrong was a person caught between eras,” Watkins said, adding he doesn’t think Armstrong understood how political the position of top cop is.

“In several cases, he had to deal with the (internal) politics within the department,” he said. “And he had to deal with the … politics of providing cover for the mayor or being thrown under the bus by the former mayor.”

Watkins said Armstrong’s views on community policing – and its return after it was cut back starting in 2006 with the dawn of Blue CRUSH by then-director Larry Godwin – was “encouraging” initially.

With the city’s first fatal police shooting last summer, Watkins and others involved in the Black Lives Matter movement saw Armstrong’s use of the phrase “all lives matter” at the funeral of slain police officer Sean Bolton as an effort to “undercut” the movement.

“In some ways it was new packaging, same product,” Watkins said. “I think he was overwhelmed by political forces inside and outside the department that may have prevented some of the things he wants to do from succeeding.”

Police culture and shifting attitudes

Williams agrees there has been a local and national shift in attitudes toward police. But he sees the local shift very differently than Watkins.

“Memphis has the ability to become a Ferguson because we keep seeing people trying to push us in that direction,” Williams said, referring to the Missouri town where a fatal police shooting and the police response to protests lit the fuse on national protests that followed similar deaths in other cities.

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

Conrad agrees, although he sees the union and Williams specifically as an obstacle to necessary city financial decisions.

Conrad was a vocal opponent of the revamped Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, which Watkins and the Peace and Justice Center pushed for in several forms and the council ultimately approved.

“The people who were the loudest mouthpieces on that are anti-police, pure and simple,” Conrad said. “I think it sends the exact wrong message.”

Armstrong connected, in Williams’ view, in a way that no police director from outside the city and outside the ranks could, at least initially. That included initially praising peaceful protests in Memphis post-Ferguson.

“Director Armstrong would go stand on the corner with them,” he said. “That’s the difference. You don’t have somebody go out there with these Gestapo dudes with their riot gear on, and now we are going to start something. … You’ve got to have somebody who’s got that ability to walk that thin line.”

There’s a siege mentality that’s part of generational cycle not tied to any one director or any one administration.”

–Brad Watkins, executive director, Mid-South Peace and Justice Center

The Mid-South Peace and Justice Center’s Watkins describes a violent police culture that is separate from individual officers.

“The institution of MPD is shrouded in secrecy, resists any attempts at transparency or accountability from the outside, and is the largest part of city government and only seeks to grow larger,” he said. “There’s a siege mentality that’s part of generational cycle not tied to any one director or any one administration.”

Williams says police training continually changes to reflect different times and attitudes.

Watkins acknowledges better training for some officers, such as those on the Crisis Intervention Team that responds to calls involving those who are mentally ill.

“Every MPD officer should have that training,” he said. “The warrior culture – not only within MPD, in all law enforcement – discourages officers who are having difficulties with (post-traumatic stress disorder), depression, alcoholism. That then spills out into incidents of domestic violence and, in our view, incidents of harassment and violence on the streets that is completely not being address not comprehensively by the department.”

Williams thinks Armstrong did an “outstanding job.”

“I think the problem was he was never provided the resources or the manpower to be able to combat crime in this city,” he said.

And without the funding to do that, Williams predicted of whoever comes next, “you are either setting them up for failure or you are going to use them for a scapegoat.”

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