VOL. 132 | NO. 47 | Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Councilmen Draw Lines On Safety, Deannexation
By Bill Dries
Attorneys for the city of Memphis have filed a motion to combine two federal court lawsuits over a City Hall surveillance list and have them brought before the same federal judge.
And U.S. District Judge Jon P. McCalla has granted the motion of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee to intervene in the lawsuit on the plaintiff’s side.
McCalla has set a scheduling conference, his first hearing on the matter, for March 28.
The lawsuits allege the Memphis Police Department was conducting illegal surveillance of protesters across the city in the last year. Many of the protesters were put on a list that required them to have a uniformed police officer escort them if they go anywhere in City Hall.
Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings announced last week that most of the 81 citizens on the list, including the protesters, were mistakenly put on the list and their names have been removed.
Rallings has not said how they were selected for the list. He has also argued that some of the surveillance mentioned in the lawsuits might be the result of police body cameras and police attempting to maintain public order in public places.
The lawsuits allege the city violated a 1978 federal court consent decree that specifically forbids police from conducting such surveillance.
Attorneys for the city have argued in their first response to the lawsuit, filed last week, that the nearly 40-year old consent decree does not apply and is no longer in effect.
Watching the controversy are Memphis City Council members who don’t appear anxious to set foot in the legal fray.
“This council has no authority over any day-to-day operations for City Hall,” council chairman Berlin Boyd said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”
“We didn’t know anything about the list,” he said. “We found out at exactly the same time as the public.”
But Boyd and council members Kemp Conrad and Worth Morgan said they make a distinction between surveillance of political activity and watching demonstrations to maintain public safety.
“It’s a fine line. … I think City Hall is very open, but we live in a dangerous day and age and there are crazy people out there,” Conrad said.
He said many attending various protests for different issues are the same protesters who bear watching.
“It’s a lot of the same people,” Conrad said. “What would be worse is, the media would be all over us if something were to happen. They would say, ‘Why didn’t you have stricter security?’”
He also complained that the protests are costing “millions and millions of dollars” for police to react to – most notably the pipeline protest in January that blocked the entrance to the Valero refinery. Several of the protesters were arrested after they chained themselves to barrels.
“Those are, I think, the ones that have to really be watched,” Conrad said. “Totally going over the line, blocking oil refineries.”
Boyd said security at City Hall is more than the threat of violence seen in other workplaces. There can be an element of politics behind the threats.
“I think you should not be placed on a list until you have done an action that would cause you to be on a list – if you threaten somebody at City Hall or if you threaten an elected official or employee, then therefore you should be watched,” Boyd said. “We’ve seen some workplace violence, but we’ve also seen people’s actions based upon social media posts, things they say about anti-government, anti-police.”
Morgan questions whether police seeing a public post and reacting to it is surveillance.
“If somebody’s posting something to social media for all the public to see or if they are doing something in public in a protest in the street … I don’t know if I would classify this as surveillance,” he said.
“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Conrad, Morgan and Boyd also expressed some reservations and financial concerns about Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland’s proposal to de-annex seven areas of the city.
The city is conducting public hearings in the areas proposed.
“I don’t mind de-annexing areas if we can get a return on our overall capital investment that we put in those areas,” Boyd said. “If we cannot recoup our capital investment, I don’t think the inner city can afford to just hand over gifts to these annexed areas.”
Boyd pegs the gift at $8.5 million in city property tax revenue.
Boyd’s district includes a rural area of Frayser where only three people live, “and deer.” Boyd said he has no problem with the de-annexation of that area or a part of the southwest Memphis flood plain where nobody lives.
Boyd is among council members who also stress that the city obeyed state annexation laws in force at the time of the annexations and did not violate any law.
“Memphis did a poor job of trying to annex itself out of debt,” he said. “It didn’t work. … However, we did it within the law.”
Conrad said he has an “open mind” on the de-annexation proposal.
“The city can’t come out of this with a net loss,” he said. “That would be a dereliction of duty on our part. … I do think that over time that the city grew too much too fast.”