At a time when cities across the nation grapple with how police use force and cultivate meaningful relationships at the community level, the U.S. Justice Department has shut down Memphis’ “collaborative review” to do just that.
This occurred without a whisper from the City of Memphis or the Memphis Police Department, even when, just over a year ago on Oct. 26, 2016, the city was so whipped up by news of the voluntary federal program, local TV news broke into the long-running soap opera “Young and the Restless” and the popular talk show “Live With Kelly” for the announcement.
Now, that’s serious.
Police Director Michael Rallings had asked for the federal review in the wake of investigations by the Justice Dept.’s Civil Rights Division to get to the bottom of killings of unarmed black people by police, which sparked an uprising generally known as Black Lives Matter. Think: Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Eric Garner in New York; Freddie Gray in Baltimore; and Rekia Boyd in Chicago. Rallings was acting upon the recommendation of Edward Stanton III, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, who served during the Justice Dept.’s investigation of the July 17, 2015 killing of Darrius Stewart. The 19-year-old was an unarmed backseat passenger shot and killed by Memphis police officer Connor Schilling.
The idea for Memphis and other cities is signing up with a collaborative review could serve as a hedge against a dreaded Civil Rights Division investigation. For cities found deficient, a typical outcome is being bound by a consent decree and five years of monitoring paid for by the cities — about $11 million a year.
7 questions an inquiring citizen might ask
That was then, and this now, so there is probably some confusion about what happened, what is not going to happen—and why.
Q: What is a “collaborative review” anyway?
A: This is a voluntary program a law enforcement agency may ask to be a part of as a proactive way of improving policing. The Justice Dept.’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services lifts the proverbial hood of a local police department and looks at factors such as use of force and community policing practices. The office then provides training and monitors progress to help local police get it right. The program is free of charge and can take two to three years to complete.
Q: Well, what happened in Memphis?
A: The City of Memphis and MPD signed on the dotted line in March 2017 to get things started — a Memorandum of Agreement. This committed city officials to give the feds “full access” to records, and permission to publish and “widely disseminate” its findings and recommendations.
Q: But why did it end?
A: Sessions said the Office of Community Oriented Policing needed a “course correction” and local police could better run their own shops without advice from the feds. So, he ended collaborative reviews underway in Memphis and 14 other cities, Daily Kos reported.
“These changes will return control to the public safety personnel sworn to protect their communities and focus on providing real-time technical assistance to best address the identified needs of requesting agencies to reduce violent crime,” Sessions stated in September.
Q: So, that’s it?
A: The program now is basically, “don’t call us; we’ll call you.” MPD may request technical assistance, which means training and follow-up from a menu of subjects, such as handling demonstrations, officer safety and wellness, and problem-solving techniques. A new agreement is in force after Rallings signed a new one on Oct. 12.
Q: What was behind Memphis getting with this program in the first place?
A: After Stanton planted the idea, Rallings found the program had positive results elsewhere and bought in.
Q: Has anything good ever come out of this collaborative review process?
A: Well, it usually does. The Community Oriented Policing Services has had a positive effect on cities, reporting declines in use-of-force complaints during oversight periods. In Memphis this past summer, Rallings seemed to step up community appearances with an official photographer in tow to post pictures to social media. On June 10, for example, Rallings attended four community events, including “touch a truck” downtown, where kids could play on fire engines and police vehicles, and a local father’s “Stop the Gun Violence” event in Frayser. That dad, Reginald Johnson, had been critical of Memphis police following the murder of his son Samuel Johnson on Halloween night 2014, accusing police of not solving the case and harassing him after he spoke to the media about it.
Memphis police also exercised grace and caution in July when citizens opposed to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s labor practices busted out with a “salsa dance party” inside a store. Local managers were told by corporate headquarters to get police to “drag them out of there and arrest them, and anybody with them, and charge them up.” Instead, police shooed protesters out of the store as they shouted, “Boycott Wal-Mart.” No arrests were made.
And while local police rarely release body-cam footage without being forced, they did provide a clip to local media after an African-American attorney complained an officer had profiled him at a traffic stop.
Q: Will anything good come of this?
A: The same federal team that invested hundreds of hours in this effort is still available to work with Memphis police on technical assistance/training the police chief may request. So, there is a potential benefit to community policing here.
The upshot, though: It’s up to police to police the police.
Gary Moore is a filmmaker whose Memphis-made documentary “Who Will Watch the Watchers?” tracks the struggles of citizens who were arrested for filming police, then sought justice at City Hall in an election year.
This report is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit reporting project on economic justice in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today.