Under the guise of protecting the public and preempting protests, the Memphis Police Department spied on the church where I pastor as we hosted a community meeting in 2016. I found out about the surveillance when a local news outlet ran a story about it.
Clearly, police-civilian relations could use some work.
The Memphis Police Department Independent Monitoring Team, headed by Edward Stanton III, has been working to update residents on progress and challenges in enforcing a 1978 consent decree to uphold citizens’ rights to be free of police surveillance. Memphis was found guilty of violating this degree in 2018, and now, Mayor Jim Strickland is arguing to lift the decree to accommodate so-called modern policing.
Unlike Strickland, Memphians must take a stand for our rights as citizens — and taxpayers — to be protected and not forced to surrender our rights and send more poor black people to jail in the name of “public safety.”
Since the 2016 Hernando de Soto Bridge demonstration, I and several local activists trained in de-escalation and mediation tactics, have asked to conduct cultural sensitivity training for local police. We believe including the voices, perspectives and experiences of Memphians who have been on the front lines with officers can inform what works and doesn’t work when it comes to protecting the people who live here.
Instead, the privately run commission that gifted MPD with $6.1 million hired Raymond Kelly — the mastermind behind the infamous stop-and-frisk laws popularized in the 1990s that funneled thousands of nonviolent citizens into the prison industrial complex. It’s hard to see how hiring a widely discredited surveillance apologist represents progress for Memphis.
Moreover, I was the only black pastor in Memphis placed on a City Hall “blacklist” authorized by Strickland, which required citizens on that list be escorted by police whenever entering City Hall.
Strickland recently sent out a mass email full of “disinformation” to diminish the impact of the consent decree: He asserts that police can’t fight crime if they cannot use illegal measures. This is happening at the same time the city is touting numbers that suggest violent crime is on the decline.
The mayor, Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich and the secretive Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission conflate “gang violence” with a quest to compile political intelligence on everyday citizens.
This is a violation of our civil rights and liberties.
It is true, Memphis ranks high on homicide — No. 8 nationally — and stands at No. 6 in aggravated assaults, according to recent FBI data. A closer look adds perspective on how the rhetoric of “gang culture” manipulates data to create space for our criminal justice apparatus to engage in regression instead of reform.
Now, the term “gang” is presumed to be affiliated with young, black, urban, poor, males and is part of a toolkit of dog-whistle words designed to thwart black agency. This presumption, which MPD refers to as data-driven or “predictive” policing, creates policies that disproportionately targets black youth and sweeps up other groups as collateral damage.
Memphis has more than 400,000 black residents. There are less than 15,000 violent crimes committed every year — black and white combined. That’s 3.5%. Add to that equation the number of people who commit more than one violent crime.
By any calculation, a minuscule number of black residents are involved in violent crime. Meanwhile, we are being asked to give law enforcement carte blanche in violating policies explicitly implemented to protect citizens civil rights.
Do the actions of a few justify the systemic, structural and unjust treatment of the many? Help me if my math is off.
The mayor doesn’t want citizens on his lawn without his consent, but he is perfectly fine with law enforcement monitoring citizens direct messages, text messages, emails, phone calls, social media accounts, neighborhoods and houses without our consent — just to stop “gangs” and public protests.
I can’t sign off on that.
It’s not anti-police to point out when policing prioritizes punishing and surveilling law-abiding citizens rather than protecting them.
The Rev. Dr. Earle Fisher, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, is founder and lead organizer of UpTheVote901 and the Henry Logan Starks Fellow at Memphis Theological Seminary.
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