The City of Memphis picked more than 20 people to interview candidates to be the next Memphis Police Department director, but only one who could be considered an activist: DeVante Hill.
He acknowledges that among some local organizers and protest leaders, his status as such is controversial, if not questionable. Yet he’s in good standing with Mayor Jim Strickland, who embraced Hill, 28, as a community leader – even as he was on probation for filing a false police report.
“I didn’t seek out to be selected,” Hill said. “But I did participate. I did reach out to some of the other activists to ask their concerns so that way I could take their concerns as well into that room. That way it wouldn’t just be a DeVante show.”
Some pastors, community leaders and organizers have criticized the city for a selection process that’s been less than transparent, so when Hill reached out to MLK50: Justice Through Journalism to share what happened in the police director interviews, we took him up on his offer.
“A lot of the activists in the city want to know what was said and what was done in those interviews. And I have no problem being transparent about it,” Hill said.
Hill garnered media attention in 2016 when racial justice protestors blocked traffic on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on Interstate 40. Hill and then interim Memphis Police Director Mike Rallings walked off the bridge arm-in-arm together, though the protest continued after they left. Hill would later back Rallings selection as director. (Rallings’ last day was Wednesday; the interim director is MPD Deputy Director James Ryall.)
And last summer after the killing of George Floyd, Hill’s organizing tactics were described by one columnist as “awkward.” At a particularly unusual gathering, he segregated the crowd into white people and Black people and led them in call-and-response chants.
God, this is awkward to watch. https://t.co/ZFXIwR6Igs— Ryan Poe (@ryanpoe) June 3, 2020
In June, Strickland appeared with Hill and praised him for leading peaceful protests, reported The Commercial Appeal. The relationship strikes some veteran organizers and activists, many of whom were shunned by Strickland, as chummier than is typical between an elected official who wants to expand the police force and an activist who has called for criminal justice reform.
For the police director interviews, Hill sat on the community organization and leaders panel. Also on his panel: Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich, which was uncomfortable, he said.
Her office charged him in 2016 for filing a false police report; he pled guilty and accepted a pretrial diversion program. A warrant was issued in early March for violating the terms of his probation, according to Fox 13. Two weeks later, he was in the room with Weirich to interview director candidates.
To put some distance between him and the district attorney, Hill asked if he could be moved to a different room to conduct the virtual interviews with candidates. (His request wasn’t granted.)
“Not that I have anything against her, but she obviously has everything against me,” He said. “But I was able to put it to the side just to get the work done.”
The city had previously announced seven candidates before naming an eighth, Durham Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, April 5. MLK50: Justice Through Journalism spoke with Hill last week, before his panel interview with Davis.
This has been edited for clarity and condensed for length.
Shiraz Ahmed, MLK50: Justice Through Journalism: What did the mayor’s office say when they invited you to interview police director candidates?
DeVante Hill, activist: The explanation that I was given was that (I was) willing to be a part of proactive conversations that were realistic. … There has to be some degree of compromise. There has to be some degree of conversation. I think that they knew that I was, one, going to be respectful to the candidates at least.
You have so many individuals who are activists, they just flat out hate the police department. They hate the police officers. Nothing that they can say will be positive.
Of course, not only am I an activist but I’m also an (Army) veteran. And in the military, I served as a military police. So I get it on all sides. I’ve been thrown in the back of a police car before, and I’ve been on the other side of the spectrum on base.
Were you aware of the criticism about the process not being transparent before you accepted?
Before I accepted, no. … Once I found out that we would actually be convening to interview the police directors, I did begin to reach out to the mayor’s office … and inquired on more transparency. Not because I thought that it would be great for optics, but because I felt like the community needed to be a part of that process.
Can you give specific examples of what you requested and a measure the city adopted or plans to adopt?
I asked specifically if perhaps the interview process could be livestreamed, so that people could actually go and watch. I also asked if it was possible for the process itself to be laid out publicly. They kind of did that on Twitter. (Editor’s note: After the first interviews were conducted, the City of Memphis’ media Twitter account shared the list of panelists who interviewed the candidates.)
As far as a town hall discussion, I asked for that as well. … We agreed that we would (wait until some of the candidates had been eliminated) and that we would have the conversation then on how to move forward to have a civilized, organized town hall discussion with the final candidates.
Were you given any guidance on topics or questions from the mayor’s office?
There was a rubric of questions, maybe five or six of them, that they put in front of us as example questions that we could ask. And (the questions) were pretty broad, talking about crime, talking about youth violence, talking about community, but I asked none of those questions.
I asked (Waterloo, Iowa Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald) about (allegations that he was) misrepresenting his credentials or his work ethic in Fort Worth.
I asked (former Philadelphia Deputy Police Commissioner Joseph P. Sullivan) if he was so great as he is on paper, why would (the city of Philadelphia) randomly tell him that he was no longer needed?
I also asked questions about demilitarizing the police department and what does that look like? I also asked ‘Are you advocating for more officers or would you move officers around?’
Of course, we (have) an issue of a rise in unresolved homicides, but (my supporters and I) also don’t believe that adding more police officers to the police department is the response to that. (Editor’s note: A report commissioned by the city says Memphis needs 2,800 officers. Memphis City Council has set a goal of 2,500; the city had almost 2,100 in November.)
You have some of the (internal) candidates who said they would take officers from the drug task force and add them to homicide and that would make up the difference.
You had some candidates that talked about advocating for decriminalizing marijuana.
Did you hear any answers that alarmed you?
Yes. And they came from a Memphis police officer. (Editor’s note: Hill declined to name the internal candidate.)
What did the internal candidate say?
They were proposing how they would clean up Lamar Avenue and clean up ‘drug stricken areas.’ The officer made mention that he was going to shut down Lamar with roadblocks.
That turned me completely off and I made sure he understood that there are going to be innocent people that are impacted by that, that shouldn’t be caught up in the legal system. Perhaps they’ll be driving without a driver’s license and now, they’re going to go to jail or they’re going to get a misdemeanor citation because they don’t have a driver’s license because they can’t afford it.
Did any of the candidates make specific commitments to community interaction if hired?
Many of the candidates talked a good game as it pertains to community, but … there were only a few of them that actually spoke exactly what they would do. … Two candidates mentioned having a community liaison at each precinct and holding monthly town hall meetings at each precinct, almost like a sub-CLERB (Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board) inside the precinct.
There were only two out of the seven who had something positive to say about community oversight. And one of the candidates mentioned actually giving CLERB more power. … That was actually impressive to me.
(Editor’s note: A prior chairman of CLERB, which reviews citizen complaints against police, complained that the board was a “dog and pony show” with no power to hold police accountable. MPD director Rallings, who retired this week, didn’t uphold any disciplinary recommendations made by CLERB. CLERB’s current chairman is a pastor and retired Memphis police officer.)
The panel interviews occurred right before the beginning of the trial of former Minneapolis Officer Derek Chauvin for the killing of George Floyd. Did any of the candidates address use of deadly force?
Yes. Deadly force was addressed specifically by two of the three Memphis candidates.
We also talked about the duty to intervene and even consequences for those who don’t intervene at that point, because they talked about it being a part of your job description to intervene in the face of something that’s happening that shouldn’t happen. And they also talked about creating a (private system for officers to report misconduct by other officers) without becoming ostracized within the police department.
There is a silent blue cry that’s taking place between Black officers here in the city who see something and perhaps they’re afraid of saying it because of how their colleagues will probably treat (them).
At the end of the panels, how did you deliver feedback on the candidates?
At the end of each candidate’s interview, the room came to a consensus about the pros and the cons of each candidate. And at the end of the day, the mayor came in and we were able to share those concerns and those positive notes.
To what degree of confidence can you say a town hall is going to occur?
(City of Memphis Chief Human Resources Officer Alex Smith) and I have been in conversation about it and her only (hesitation) is just making sure that that town hall discussion doesn’t turn into a circus. … I don’t believe anyone is against a public town hall discussion. I think the question becomes, ‘What are the logistics of it?’
And then secondly, (the priority is) making sure that it is a respectful town hall discussion. … After this next police director is selected, as a city, we don’t want (it to have been) a nasty process.
What do you mean by ‘nasty’? What’s out of bounds?
I think (there is) no ‘out of bounds’ when you’re expressing your concern and your frustration as it pertains to the community that you live in. And if you feel over-policed, I do believe that you deserve the opportunity to share your concerns. … But I think in times past, just flat out, sometimes (activists) can just be flat out disrespectful. You put a mic in the wrong person’s hand and they just say whatever. You just never know what you’re going to get.
Shiraz Ahmed is editorial operations manager for MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Email him at email@example.com
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