MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is partnering with the Memphis People’s Convention, which is August 10-12. We think you should attend, so we asked Rev. Earle J. Fisher, founder of #UPTheVote901 and senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, to tell you why this is the right time to get involved.

“Memphis has suffered too many years of political exploitation and manipulation. The result has been an abiding apathy, especially in the Black community, and far too much poverty and despair. 

“The Memphis People’s Convention is an effort to reignite a necessary political fire and embrace the political empowerment our people need and our communities deserve. This is a quest towards increased political power, information and representation. We are often too content with righteous criticism of the current state of affairs. 

“Through the Memphis People’s Convention, we can add righteous construction to our critique and create the conditions and opportunities we need in our community.”

Since the announcement last week that the Department of Justice would open a civil pattern or practice investigation into the City of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department, I’ve been doing some research and taking notes.  

These investigations seem methodical and thorough; they aren’t quick, and they can take a year or more to complete. But at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, we try to stay ready so we don’t have to get ready. 

MLK50: Justice Through Journalism is an official media partner for the Memphis People’s Convention.

The DOJ will be looking to determine whether there are systemic violations of the Constitution or federal law by the MPD. It will focus on the department’s use of force and its stops, searches and arrests; whether the department engages in discriminatory policy. 

I learned that, separate from this, the MPD has been getting technical assistance from the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services related to use of force and de-escalation practices, and its use of specialized units. I didn’t know that, after Tyre Nichols was killed at the hands of five Memphis police officers, the U.S. associate attorney general asked that a guide be developed for police chiefs and mayors to help them assess the appropriateness of the use of specialized units. That guide is forthcoming, and its recommendations are supposed to be informed by “stakeholders.” 

I wonder who they consider stakeholders. Y’all know anyone who’s been contacted? 

I took note, too, of Mayor Jim Strickland’s response to the investigation. He said his office will cooperate fully, then added: “At the end of the day, how have these affected the recruitment and retention of officers? How has it affected the crime rate? What’s it cost?” 

Does it seem odd to anyone else that the mayor’s first thoughts were of how this would affect the police department being investigated rather than the citizens who may have been harmed?

I’ve been learning about other cities that have had these investigations. Under the Biden administration, the DOJ has completed two — Louisville and Minneapolis. It has seven more ongoing. I’m particularly interested in outcomes.

From what I can tell, if you consider the goals of these investigations justice and equity and accountability, and you consider justice and equity and accountability matters of public safety — and I do — a civil pattern or practice investigation is worthwhile and helpful. New Orleans, Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore have made progress in their policing; Cleveland, it seems, is struggling. 

It’s an understatement to say changing structures is hard; changing one with a history like policing, with the number of people and ideas ingrained and invested in it takes persistent, consistent work. That’s another understatement.

I noted something else in my research: Some will cast doubt on these investigations. I’ll share the Top 3: They don’t stem violent crime overall (except, you know, when the police engage in it against citizens, and also, not the goal). They make it hard to recruit officers (remember they said it’s already hard to recruit officers now, even with a pay increase, and the investigation hasn’t begun). And — as the mayor showed — adapting to any changes required after the investigation costs too much. (What’s the right price not to have citizens terrorized by the state?)

That pushback isn’t concerned with how safe residents feel. It’s about how the powerful want to rest safely in their power. 

So, I say, encourage everyone you know to share their stories about encounters with the MPD with the DOJ: you can contact the Justice Department at Community.Memphis@usdoj.gov or call 888-473-3730. We want the investigation to be thorough and targeted. 

Arm yourself with knowledge about the DOJ’s process and with knowledge about this city’s history of policing.

Understand that once the investigation is over, the real work begins.

Stay ready. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com


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