Longtime community organizer Paul Garner had a question for the mayor’s selection for police chief. But then he pulled up the city’s two-page, 15-field online submission form, which requires the user to sign electronically, creating a “legally binding contract.”
It seemed like a lot, just to pose a question that might – or might not – be asked at Friday’s virtual public forum. And he wasn’t sure what he wanted to ask. So he left the tab open for a day or two.
The question and answer session with Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis, Mayor Jim Strickland’s appointee to head the Memphis Police Department, comes after months of organizers and activists demanding a public forum with all of the finalists, to no avail.
Almost two weeks ago, on April 19, Strickland announced he was selecting Davis, who is currently police chief in Durham, North Carolina. The next day, council member Michalyn Easter-Thomas introduced a resolution asking for a town hall with Davis. Three days after that, the city announced that “in a spirit of additional transparency,” it along with the council would hold a virtual question and answer session at 1 p.m. Friday.
It’s not clear why users had to provide more personal information than they would to speak at a council meeting, or what will be done with the information users had to agree would be stored. Neither Strickland or Easter-Thomas responded to emails.
But the process could make residents reluctant to participate, one legal observer noted. And it reminds others of the city’s long ago and recent practice of surveilling residents engaged in First Amendment protected activities.
Garner was one of four initial plaintiffs in the 2017 lawsuit against the city for violating a 1978 federal consent decree that barred the Memphis Police Department from spying on activists. In the lawsuit, filed by the ACLU, activists said police created a blacklist that banned people from city hall without an escort. A judge agreed and ruled against the city in 2018, finding the city in violation of the consent decree.
Garner acknowledged that he and other organizers have a “heightened sense of paranoia” when seeing the city asking for personal information, but it’s reasonable he said, given the history.
“This doesn’t really reassure those of us who already have that on our mind,” Garner said. “And it’s still fresh on a lot of our minds.”
The question and answer session will be moderated by Memphis NAACP chapter executive Vickie Terry, and the questions will be selected in advance – meaning it’s unlikely that every submission will be posed. In an April 23 announcement the city said the session was “in a spirit of additional transparency.” The city promoted the event once each on its Twitter and Facebook pages, pinning the posts to the top of their feeds.
The city has not explained how the questions will be selected or who’ll choose them. But residents had less than a week to submit questions. After several sentences of instructions, submitters had to check a box saying “I agree that I am willing to complete a digital version of the document(s) and that information about my user session will be stored.”
On the second page, users had to fill out their full name, home address, phone number and email address. Below the question box was a space for a digital signature and date, asking the user to agree the information was “true and accurate.”
And selecting the signature box brought up a pop-up window for an electronic signature, with yet another agreement. It required a user’s “Full Legal Name,” initials, email and signature, and an agreement to a “legally binding contract.” Every section of the city’s form had to be filled out to be submitted, and the instructions said incomplete forms would not be considered.
Asking for that much information could have a chilling effect on soliciting questions, said Steve Mulroy, a law professor at the University of Memphis and a former Shelby County Commissioner. Someone might be initially turned off by the first page, which had nearly 250 words of instructions.
By the time they reached the second page, they might be dissuaded from entering so much personal information, and then certification and signature “seems really unnecessary and gratuitous,” Mulroy said.
It’s not clear why the city asked for so much information, as there doesn’t seem to be any precedent. Speakers at city council meetings give their full names and addresses, but not phone numbers or email addresses. And speakers aren’t required to sign anything, said Mulroy, who noted that the signature on the police chief question form might not even be legally enforceable.
After friends started sharing screenshots of the form with Rev. Earle Fisher, he decided not to use it to ask one of the many questions he has for Davis. Others said they were already posing them on his behalf, and the signature requirement in particular felt “real weird” to him.
“That gave me a sense of suspicion, knowing the administration has literally put activists and citizens under illegal surveillance. Who knows what they would do with the information that comes through a platform like that?” he asked.
Davis is no stranger to public questioning: In 2016, she and the other finalist to be Durham’s police chief sat in front of residents at a public forum. Questions could be submitted in advance on Twitter and Facebook, by phone and by email. At the forum, attendees could also submit questions on index cards.
A prior town hall may have led the city council and administration to shy away from allowing people to ask questions live. In 2016 Strickland and then-interim police director Michael Rallings held a public meeting at Greater Imani Church the morning after a large, peaceful – if tense – protest on the Interstate 40 bridge. The town hall became an outlet for people to express frustration and anger with policing in the city, and the conversation quickly turned heated. Afterward, the city released online a full list of submitted questions with Strickland’s answers.
So when Easter-Thomas proposed the resolution for a public forum with Davis, she took care to say it wouldn’t be like the town hall at Greater Imani. Instead, people could submit questions to city council staff ahead of time by email, she said. Then, it was suggested that a form for submissions might be easier. Easter-Thomas said that would be fine too. “Whatever is easiest for our staff,” she said.
Reginald Johnson, president of the local nonprofit Stop the Violence, might have asked Davis a question had the public been allowed to attend, he said. Johnson became disillusioned with the city’s police department when he was arrested and jailed after dialing 911 when a man who’d been shot knocked on his door. He filed a complaint with the city’s Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, which was upheld, but Rallings refused to take any additional actions against the officers involved.
He would have preferred an outdoors, socially distanced public forum in which people could ask Davis questions on the spot. Submitting the questions in advance, he said, made the whole process untrustworthy.
“The way it’s done now, it’s just a controlled narrative. Your question may not even be presented,” Johnson said.
Not everyone was overly concerned about the form, however. Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said she wasn’t sure why the form asked for so much information, and noted that the form doesn’t explain why they’re collecting it.
“It just seems unnecessary,” she said.
But she didn’t think it would dissuade people from asking questions. “People freely give that information to private companies who sell it…But I guess for some reason people seem happy to give that information to private companies but they don’t like to have to give that information to (the) government,” she added.
Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope and its youth council had been pressing the city for a forum with the candidates for months. On Thursday, two MICAH organizers said they have concerns about the process and the form, but they’re looking forward to the session.
In a statement, Ernie Hilliard, co-chair of MICAH’s Race and Class Equity in the Justice System Task Force, said “While we are concerned that the process for submitting questions is intrusive and intimidating for many in our community, we are focusing on the community’s input and which questions will be addressed and answered. We are grateful that a forum was added to the process and we hope that this process does not deter people from participating or asking their questions.”
MICAH’s vice president, Janiece Lee, said that they’re looking forward to the session, “yet just two days before the forum, we have no idea how the questions will be chosen or how the information collected from the submissions, such as addresses, will be used.
“This is an opportunity for policing in Memphis to begin to be more community-centered rather than administration controlled and driven,” she added.
Fisher had also been calling for a public forum with the candidates. Now that Strickland has appointed a new chief, he’s dissatisfied with how the process has gone.
“Whether it’s enough for me or not I think is out of my hands, because I’ve already been handicapped, and I think that’s part of the intention,” he said. “The intention is not to be open and inclusive to all those who have a voice in this city.”
Ultimately, Garner did end up submitting a question. But even if the form was designed without malicious intent, that won’t impact how people see it, he said.
“For a lot of folks who are already intimidated by these types of processes, having to put your full name and your address and your phone number and sign something that feels like you’re signing an official document that there could be consequences for – that doesn’t feel like an open process,” Garner said.
“That doesn’t feel like a process that would welcome public input.”
Hannah Grabenstein is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at email@example.com
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