Memphis police cars line Union Avenue May 27 in response to a police brutality protest that drew about 100 people. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

How did Memphis, a majority-Black city where voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a nearly 3 to 1 margin and whose U.S. congressman is a vocal Trump critic, become a demonstration site for a racist president’s “law and order” crime-fighting crusade?

For weeks, streets across the country and in Memphis roiled as hundreds of thousands, if not millions, rose up against police brutality. This broken criminal justice system is both brisk and slow — strangling the life out of George Floyd and gunning down Breonna Taylor all while ravaging communities of color.

Calls to defund the police grew louder and came from more corners. Yet Trump’s neck is stiff. His obsession with cities as symbols of chaos is sure, as are his troubling directives that police squelch civil disobedience by any means necessary.

Mayor Jim Strickland too has brushed away demands to dismantle status quo policing, while offering what amounts to crumbs of reform — which he immediately follows with his own demand: Memphis must have more officers now.

Trump’s language is carnal and bombastic, flung from podiums and slung on Twitter. Strickland’s is more measured, delivered through statements posted online and his weekly newsletter.

But their message is always the same and in it lies the explanation for how the Trump administration has been able to put Memphis squarely in its sights: Only police can keep us safe, structural reform would put our safety at risk, and bigger police forces lead to better communities.

They have in common an unhealthy and compulsive devotion to police — a blue crush, as it were.

The rhetorical parallels between Trump and Strickland are not always obvious. My goal here is to lay them bare. Since Strickland took office, the steady drip of federal money and law enforcement resources has swelled into a river, enabling Memphis to increase the size and lethality of its police force. Here I also lay that bare.

Just yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that Memphis will now be home to 16 temporary federal investigators and 24 permanent officers from ATF, FBI, DEA and Homeland Security. The staffing surge follows a sharp rise in homicides locally since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic , and comes courtesy of “Operation Legend,” Trump’s latest effort to flood cities with feds in response to spikes in violent crime he’s linked — without evidence — to protests.

D. Michael Dunavant, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Tennessee, said yesterday that when appointed, Trump gave him two orders: Reduce crime and back the blue. “Operation Legend,” Dunavant declared, “does both of those things.”

A careful look at Strickland’s record suggests that like Dunavant, the mayor has followed the president’s lead. Strickland, like Trump, displays the same disdain and disrespect for protests against police.

Even as Trump signed an executive order in mid-June that would create a nationwide police misconduct database, he slammed local efforts to cut police budgets as “radical and dangerous” and called for “leaders at every level of government” to resist.

Mayor Jim Strickland speaks at the Orpheum Theater during a commemoration of the 1968 sanitation strikers on February 24, 2018. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Two weeks later, Strickland followed suit, and announced a new website where residents can report local law enforcement misconduct. But in a statement he flatly rejected calls to shift any of the Memphis Police Department’s $282 million budget toward education, mental health support or housing for people experiencing homelessness, as demanded by grassroots activists, a coalition of 150 local nonprofits, a separate coalition of 50-plus faith and community organizations and a cadre of Black pastors.

Strickland’s stark vision of police as venerable guardians of public safety stands in bold contrast to the reasons why so many have risen in protest: As horrific as they were, the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were not isolated cases but vivid examples of the systemic harm “hyper-policing” causes Black communities across the country.

In Memphis, which is 67% Black, the stakes of the national debate over how we fund and oversee policing could not be greater.

Both as a professor of rhetoric and a longtime Memphian, I’m troubled by what I see — and even more so after June’s federal court hearing, during which the city of Memphis continued its campaign to dismantle the 1978 federal consent decree that bars police from surveilling residents for political intelligence.

I count as friends many of the activists and organizers targeted for surveillance after posting on social media and who have been arrested for engaging in civil protest. In fact, MPD surveilled one of my former students, the Rev. Dr. Earle Fisher.

In the hearing, MPD Director Michael Rallings testified that he’s told federal law enforcement officials, including U.S. Attorney General William Barr, that the consent decree ties police’s hands. Asked to clarify, a police spokesperson told Commercial Appeal reporter Daniel Connolly that Rallings told the feds that MPD “depend(s) on them to catch threats articulated on social media… They (Rallings and Barr) talk all the time.”

Earlier this month, Rallings even sought to connect calls for reducing police budgets to what he said was a lack of concern for the child victims of homicide in Memphis: “Where’s the outrage for their lives?…Where are the meetings, and where are the conversations, and where are the protests for these victims?”

Memphis police director Michael Rallings (center, hand raised) at the ribbon cutting of I Am A Man Plaza in April 2018. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Such language fits a broader narrative pushed by the Trump administration: Efforts to address the policing of Black people are, at best, a distraction from the “carnage” of violent crime, and, at worst, driven by an irrational hatred of the police that threatens the very fabric of social order. As Trump intoned at the Rose Garden in June: “Americans know the truth: Without police, there is chaos; without law, there is anarchy; and without safety, there is catastrophe.”

Before we can determine what police reform Memphis needs, we must understand how deep the city’s resistance to calls for reform and accountability go. To understand, we must study the parallels between an unpopular president and the city’s first white mayor in 24 years.

Making friends with the Feds

The first few weeks of 2017 found the Trump transition team busy completing its work and a first-term mayor struggling to keep his 2015 campaign promise to “clean this city up” using a “zero-tolerance” approach to crime.

Strickland traveled to Washington in search of help with what he called a “significant gang problem.” ATF and FBI agents, he said in a statement, could bolster the local multi-agency gang unit.

It doesn’t appear that his time was wasted, and federal support has gone well beyond the gang unit. Since 2017, the DOJ has awarded Memphis police more than $11.6 million in grants that expand the local police state and that reflect federal law enforcement’s growing footprint in the city.

As the coronavirus pandemic exploded this spring, the DOJ gave the city an additional $2.5 million to be spent on, among other things, police overtime and personnel.

And in May, as part of its “Operation Relentless Pursuit” initiative, the justice department sent the city nearly $10 million in funds — more than it awarded any other police department — to hire 50 new officers. The 40 federal agents and assistance provided through “Operation Legend” surely adds millions more to DOJ’s investment in Memphis.

Even as Strickland argued for more police earlier this week, he failed to mention what he surely already knew: “Operation Legend” federal agents were already on the ground in Memphis and more were on the way.

Just two weeks ago, on July 23, Strickland was asked directly, whether he’d heard any rumblings of a federal agent surge in Memphis, he said this: “Not one word. Not one rumor. I have heard nothing.”

Memphis police officers in riot gear block Beale Street May 30. Several people who’d followed an anti-police brutality protest earlier that evening would be arrested on charges of inciting a riot. Photo by Johnathan Martin

More police = A better Memphis?

To be sure, it’s not just Memphis. Federal monies and agents have been deployed across several American cities since Trump took office, prompting more than 75 civil rights groups to sign a joint letter in July opposing “Operation Relentless Pursuit” for contributing to the “criminalization and over-policing of Black and Brown communities while doing nothing to increase public safety.”

The Trump-era push to grow local forces found fertile ground in Memphis, in part, due to Strickland’s insistence that increasing police ranks is a public good for which virtually no expense or effort should be spared.

Days after his 2017 trip to Washington to request federal support, Strickland did what few, if any other mayor has done: He raised more than $6 million from the private sector to pay MPD officers bonuses to stay on the force, funneling the money through the secretive Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, a nonprofit that steers criminal justice policy.

With the crime commission grant in place, and just over $900,000 budgeted for MPD recruitment, the administration overhauled how the city would hire new officers. It would be “a herculean task — perhaps the most time-consuming of my tenure as your mayor,” Strickland said

In 2018, a since-deleted Fox 13 story revealed that MPD was coaching recruits to pass the physical and psychological exams.

Strickland later argued that the city had not lowered its standards. But by August 2018, records showed that the city had more than doubled the police academy’s graduation rate. In 2010, only 42% of entering recruits graduated. Seven years later, the graduation rate was 90%.

By August 2019, Strickland could claim an astonishing accomplishment for which Trump himself would rejoice: “We’ve hired just shy of 500 new officers since taking office, and we’ve hired more officers in the past two years than were hired in the six prior years combined.”

Memphis Police Department officers and Shelby County Sheriff officers line up on I-55 in response to a protest against police brutality May 31. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

With MPD’s attrition rate reportedly at its lowest since 2013, these new hires meant that MPD’s officer ranks grew from 1,959 in early 2017 to 2,081 by the end of 2019, an increase of 9.4%.

And yet, with these numbers still falling short of the goal of 2,300 officers Strickland set when he took office, Strickland revived a failed effort he sponsored in 2008 when he was a city councilman: Remove the Shelby County residency requirement and instead allow cops to live within a 100-mile radius.

This time, he would try a ballot referendum, which Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings argued in October 2019 was essential: “If you really want to move Memphis to the next level, then we have to get crime down,” he said. “We have to have more police officers.”

Such phrasing treated as fact the dubious assumption that “more police officers” is the way to lower crime, as well as adding local color to the Trump administration’s vision of police as a favored class of citizens, as “blue lives” under siege by unfair criticism and thus owed special deference in how we assess and respond to their conduct.

Trump’s attorneys general on the ground in Memphis

Aside from the dollars, Memphis policing has also received attention and praise from the highest levels of the Trump administration since Strickland took office.

Each of the nation’s top law enforcement officers in the past three years have made Memphis their backdrop for speeches about violent crime, applauding local efforts while coordinating behind closed doors with local leaders and law enforcement.

In May 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Memphis to meet with local officials and to give a speech on violent crime during which he praised state and local law enforcement agencies and vowed: “You have my word: this Department of Justice will strengthen its partnerships with you.” (In November 2018, Sessions would follow through, telling an audience in Alabama the DOJ “operations teams” were already “on the ground in Memphis” and other cities.)

In November 2018, acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker traveled to Memphis to announce a new DOJ initiative: A “Memphis Crime Gun Strike Force” to be “composed of highly experienced ATF agents and officers from the Memphis Police Department.”

In September 2019, Attorney General William Barr traveled to Memphis to announce another federal initiative “Project Guardian” which he said would “pressure with vigor where gun violence is the highest in places like Memphis. Local agencies will be involved, but ATF will be leading this effort.”

By comparison, the U.S. Attorney General made only one visit during the seven-year tenure of Strickland’s predecessor, Mayor AC Wharton. That 2014 visit by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in connection with President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative to increase opportunities for boys and men of color. (Wharton and Holder are Black; Sessions, Barr and Whitaker are white.) 

The day before his Memphis speech, Holder announced a new federal law enforcement guidance that formally barred law enforcement from racial profiling.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder speaks to protesters during his visit to the National Civil Rights Museum in December 2014. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“Particularly in light of recent incidents we’ve seen at the local level — and the concerns about trust in the criminal justice process which so many have raised throughout the nation — it’s imperative that we take every possible action to institute sound, fair and strong policing practices,” he said.

Contrast Holder’s tone with that of Barr, who said at a 2019 Fraternal Order of Police gathering in New Orleans: “As other institutions fail and abdicate, who is expected to stand their ground? Who is expected to pick up the pieces? You are. The police. The thin blue line.”

The Deference Mindset: ‘The citizens need to do something different

In Barr’s words, police are “the ones manning the ramparts” not only against “chaos and carnage,” but also against an “anti-police narrative…fanning disrespect for the law.” The message to beat cops is simple: “Those who resist must be prosecuted for that crime. We must have zero tolerance for resisting police.”

Accounts of the Strickland administration’s response to criticisms of law enforcement from attorneys, protesters and at least one journalist alike reveal a similar pattern: Police are not to be questioned or sanctioned, and the consequences for doing so will be swift.

Memphis journalist Manuel Duran says that after he refused entreaties by police brass to delete stories describing local law enforcement’s cooperation with ICE, officers targeted him for retribution.

A screenshot of one of Manuel Duran’s interviews with Mayor Jim Strickland from 2017.

During a protest action he covered in April 2018, Duran — who is undocumented — was wearing his yellow press badge when he was brutally arrested by members of a multi-agency gang unit (MGU) commanded by a Memphis police major, and staffed by at least one member of ICE.

He was booked on disorderly conduct charges, but once the charges were dropped, ICE detained him as he was released from the county jail. After 15 months in detention, Duran was let out on bond to fight his deportation.

Memphis police arrest journalist Manuel Duran as he covered a protest outside of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center on April 3, 2018. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Late last year the City of Memphis paid Duran and his attorneys $9,000 to drop his lawsuit against them for the arrests. The settlement omitted any admission of wrongdoing, in keeping with Strickland’s initial declaration that Duran’s arrest was lawful, unrelated to any criticisms of MPD, and merely an “unfortunate situation.”

After Martavious Banks, 25, was shot multiple times in September 2018 as he fled police during a traffic stop, Strickland vowed: “We’re going to get to the bottom of this.” Banks, after being hospitalized for months, would later plead guilty to evading arrest and unlawful possession of a weapon.

And though a 162-page Tennessee Bureau of Investigation report revealed police turned off their body cameras while pursuing Banks and worked to cover up their actions in the aftermath, three officers involved received brief unpaid suspensions, while the shooter resigned rather than face a full disciplinary hearing. MPD arrested six Memphians on charges ranging from disorderly conduct to inciting a riot during protests that followed Banks’ shooting.

Then, in June 2019, a group of residents protesting the shooting death of 20-year-old Brandon Webber by U.S. Marshals were met by MPD wearing riot gear and lobbing tear gas. Webber was wanted for an alleged armed robbery in Mississippi. Live streams showed people throwing objects at officers; Rallings later said that 36 officers were injured, but that any injuries to protesters did not come at the hands of the police. He offered no proof for either claim.

Asked in the aftermath whether there was “anything the police could have done differently” to avoid the escalation of tensions that led to such an outcome, Strickland was defiant: “No. The citizens need to do something different,” he said in an interview with The Commercial Appeal.

Webber’s father, Sonny, was later charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault connected to the protests. Seven others, all Black, were also indicted by a grand jury on charges of felony vandalism, aggravated riot and aggravated assault.

Friends and family of Brandon Webber, who was killed by U.S. Marshals, release balloons at a Frayser vigil in June 2019. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

For Commercial Appeal columnist Ryan Poe, Strickland’s response to the Webber protests reflected a choice. The mayor could have said he was “deeply concerned that there was a conflict at all,” or merely that he would look into the incident and “make any changes that need to be made.”

Instead, by putting the onus on the protesters (almost all of whom are Black), Strickland had found a “golden opportunity” to plant “his flag in this issue — supporting police officers” in the summer before his reelection bid, Poe wrote.

Resistance to oversight

Although supporting police and supporting police oversight are not mutually exclusive, Strickland, like Trump, has routinely demonstrated strong resistance to the latter.

He has echoed through action Trump’s distaste (despite a recent executive order in response to national protests) for “the intrusive use of federal consent decrees” and “bureaucrats [who] micromanage your local police.”

While on the city council in 2015, Strickland voted to reinstate Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB).

But after becoming mayor, he resisted calls from local community groups — such as the demands in this open letter — to give CLERB greater authority. Indeed, he stood behind a police director who had rejected every recommendation the board has made in response to citizen complaints about police misconduct.

Strickland also appeared to target CLERB members critical of his administration, declining to reappoint two attorneys on the board who openly complained that CLERB had become, in the words of its former chair (the late) Rev. Ralph White, “a dog and pony show.” And as the city council in 2019 considered an ordinance to dissolve CLERB entirely and instead allow the council to vet complaints, Strickland remained silent. Only after weeks of demonstrations this year did he agree to small CLERB changes.

The Strickland administration has also chafed against the oversight of a federal court.

In August 2018, U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla ruled that MPD had repeatedly violated a 1978 consent decree forbidding surveillance of residents for political intelligence. He created a monitoring team to oversee compliance with the ruling’s orders.

Within hours, the Strickland administration went to work undermining the ruling’s conclusion that the 40-year-old decree still applied to contemporary policing methods that include social media sleuthing. A literal interpretation of the decree, said city attorney Bruce McMullen in a statement, would “require the Police Department to turn off all security cameras and body-worn cameras during a protest.”

In 2019, the mayor’s office launched a “disinformation campaign” as the city sought — but failed — to modify the consent decree. Fulfilling the city’s request would “eviscerate the core goals of the Kendrick consent decree,” ruled U.S. District Judge Jon McCalla, to protect residents from MPD’S long record of gathering political intelligence.

Since then, the monitor and former federal prosecutor Edward Stanton III has brought before the court evidence that MPD failed to comply with significant parts of the ruling. Even though Stanton recommended that such evidence be made public, the city filed a motion in March to keep all such evidence under seal. And, in April they filed another motion seeking multiple changes to the decree. McCalla is expected to rule on the proposed changes soon.

An MPD vehicle follows protesters at a Fight for $15 action as they march down Union Avenue in November 2017. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

Turning point?

Despite Strickland’s commitment to the status quo, with only minor tinkering around the edges, there are signs that opposition to his strategy is growing.

Prompted by weeks of local demonstrations, in June the city council passed a resolution asking MPD to adopt reforms outlined in the national “8 Can’t Wait” campaign.

Also prompted by the same forces, Strickland promised some changes, including additional bias and sensitivity training for law enforcement, and an end to MPD’s use of “no-knock” warrants, the police tactic that led to the killing of Breonna Taylor. (Her killers have not been arrested.)

Yet in late July, Strickland dropped a bombshell, based on a single police staffing consultant report: Memphis needs 2,800 officers, not 2,300 as he’s said since he took office.

Mayor Jim Strickland states his position on police staffing; hours later the city council removed from the November ballot a referendum item on a relaxed police residency requirement.

A roster of 2,800 officers would mark a 28.5% increase in the force since 2006, even though the city’s current population is smaller and its square miles fewer than in 2000.

At Tuesday’s council meeting, Strickland beseeched the body not to remove the November referendum question that would allow officers to live as far as 50 miles outside the city limit. Currently, Memphis officers must live within Shelby County.

Rallings, who is set to retire in 2021, begged council members to relax residency requirements so the department could maintain its current force of just under 2,100 officers. Strickland warned the council that their vote would be a “turning point” in the city’s history, remembered for how it would impact the crime rate in the years ahead.

A majority of the council were unpersuaded and some seemed frustrated that absent from the administration’s policing push was any meaningful discussion of investments to reduce poverty, improve education, do away with low-wage jobs or anything else.

“We have to look at what else deters crime,” said Michalyn Easter-Thomas, a newly elected council member.

If the force grew to 2,800 officers “there would be essentially no room for parks; no room for public transit; no room for street-paving and no room for anything other than police,” said JB Smiley, also a new council member.

In a 7–6 vote that fell largely along Black-white lines, it struck from the November ballot the residency requirement referendum. Voting in the majority were council members Michalyn Easter-Thomas, Cheyenne Johnson, Martavius Jones, Rhonda Logan, Patrice Robinson, JB Smiley, Jr., and Jamita Swearengen, all of whom are Black.

Voting on the other side were J. Ford Canale, Chase Carlisle, Frank Colvett, Jr., Worth Morgan, Jeff Warren, all of whom are white men, and Edmund Ford, Sr., who is Black.

That same majority sent back to committee a resolution that would have required the council, some members argued, to agree that the city needs 2,800 cops.

Strickland turned to Trump’s favorite platform to issue a stern rebuke: The council members who voted to remove the referendum “couldn’t put their trust in the very people who elected them,” he tweeted, and their vote “will result in less police officers and more crime.”

But the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission’s newsletter, sent two days after the vote, seemed to suggest that the sky is not falling. As of June, “the overall crime rates in both Memphis and all of Shelby County were the lowest since the Crime Commission began reporting on overall crime in 2006,” the year before the commission’s first Safe Community Plan. The decline between January-June 2006 and January-June 2020 was nearly 25%.

To be sure, Memphis has struggled with crime for decades, and efforts such as those championed by Trump and Strickland will have perennial appeal. In October 2019, Strickland was easily reelected to his second term.

While major violent crime in Memphis dropped 4.3% in the first quarter of 2020, there has been a dramatic uptick of homicides and aggravated assaults since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And yet, the Crime Commission concedes that those violent crimes “usually involve perpetrators and victims who already know each other.” This would seem to make it difficult, if not unlikely, that more officers or federal agents could prevent such acts.

Strickland’s choice

Still, Strickland has chosen a path that calls for ever-ballooning police budgets and hundreds of more officers. It is not the only path available.

Cities across the country — including Austin, New York, San Francisco, Norman, Oklahoma, and Salt Lake City — have cut their police budgets in response to community demands.

But Strickland has chosen to pursue federal funds to expand the police state. That is not the only path available.

St. Petersburg, Florida is returning a recent $3,125,000 DOJ grant to hire 25 new officers. It will instead shift the matching funds previously allocated for police to a new social service division.

Instead of sending armed officers to calls about panhandling, mental health crises, drug overdoses, disorderly elementary school children and other issues, St. Petersburg will send social workers.

Strickland has chosen to align the future of policing in Memphis with the designs of a reckless president who has little regard for most residents.

This cannot be the only path.

Strickland, rebuffed by the city council and likely to face further hurdles in his drive to grow the Memphis Police Department, has a choice.

He could make a clean break.

He could reject any additional federal money for more police.

He could oppose any incursions of federal agents into our city.

He could propose a police budget that didn’t swallow 40% of the city’s general budget.

He can choose another path.

Editor’s note: The City of Memphis did not respond to two emails seeking comment.

Antonio de Velasco is an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Film at the University of Memphis where he teaches and conducts research on political rhetoric.

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