This series is in partnership with the Memphis Flyer.
Yes, Willie Herenton is 83. And he’s fit.
If you ask, the former mayor will tell you that he takes two-mile walks by the Mississippi during the hottest part of the day just to challenge himself. (He brings water.) He mostly eats fish and vegetables and has at least one glass of good red wine a day. Sometimes two.
So, he’s ready and able to serve Memphis again.
Yes, he left his fifth term early. In an interview about public safety with The Memphis Flyer and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, Herenton explained why: One part was his success.
“I knew I was mayor for life. Nobody was gonna beat me. I knew that,” he said. “ I’d achieved all my major goals. I couldn’t just sit around and draw a paycheck. I was bored.” (Editor’s note: In 2019 Herenton ran for mayor and was defeated by Mayor Jim Strickland.)
Another reason, he says, was because two years of scrutiny from a federal investigation was wearing on his mama.
“Basically, my trials became her trials. … She might have been watching TV, and I might have had a bad media day. And I said mom, ‘I got this. You don’t understand what’s going on.’ She wasn’t sophisticated. All she knew was her son was under pressure.”
Herenton, who was mayor from 1992 to 2009, was also candid about what he could and could not do. He doubted he’d be able to hire enough police officers to reach 2,500, the number of officers Mayor Jim Strickland has said the city needs, but he says he knows what to do to fix MPD culture. He noted that only the state legislature has the ability to take on gun control, and he thinks the highway patrol is best to tackle dangerous roadways.
He spoke more of his experience than his age as an asset, noting a couple of things he’d seen work and would like to revive: In the shadow of the killing of Tyre Nichols, he spoke of the respectable police force he led, one, he says, that embraced the Constitution.
He believes, too, in specialized units, noting that his Cobra unit, unlike the now-dismantled SCORPION unit responsible for the January beating death of Tyre Nichols, was well-trained and well-supervised.
The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. This interview was conducted on Aug. 29.
The killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers obviously damaged the community’s trust in the police. What steps would you take to rebuild that trust?
Let me give you a kind of a preface … I served as mayor for almost 18 years. So, obviously, I have experience working with directors of police. I know a lot about police operations and all this training stuff. I’m prepared to bring respectability and constitutional policing back to MPD. Now everybody knows I am pro-law enforcement. For anyone to entertain defunding the police department is utterly ridiculous to me. So I’m going to bring back Blue CRUSH (Criminal Reduction Utilizing Statistical History). Blue CRUSH was a strategy with well-trained officers. You’ve got to have specialized police units, but they’ve got to be well-trained. They’ve got to be appropriately selected. And you gotta have accountability.
We had a unit we called Cobra. Those officers were handpicked. And those units had sergeants, lieutenants and majors, ensuring accountability. What happened in the Tyre Nichols situation? They had a group of officers that didn’t have extensive tenure as police officers. And they lacked supervision… I would have an organizational structure with a chain of command providing appropriate oversight.
How would you describe Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis’ performance as police chief?
Had I been the mayor, would I have made that choice? In all probability, she would not have been my choice. Why not? Well, from what I’ve read in the press and from what I’ve heard, there were some troubling issues in her past that I probably would have had to carefully weigh. The other reason is that if I could have identified an individual that had the competency level that I could trust with that leadership role, I would have selected from within.
You said you want to increase the number of MPD officers. How would you go about doing that?
I’m gonna be very candid with you. It’s going to be very difficult reaching that 2,500 goal because I will implement the highest standards. I think they’ve lowered the standards, which is troubling to me. The academic standards, for example: I don’t think training is vigorous and as rigorous as it was. I remember, in my first term, I would go out to the training academy and watch how to train officers. I even went out on the shooting range and all that. We had well-trained officers.
MPD is currently under a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice. How do you plan to ensure the MPD treats all Memphis citizens fairly?
Well, first of all, when I said to you, it is clear to me that we need to fix the culture of MPD. I’m committed to doing that. I know exactly how to get the culture straightened out and to make sure that we have transparency. We’ll have accountability, and we’ll have constitutional policing. And it starts with my leadership. It may also have something to do with my choice of a director.
Other than policing, per se, can you name three measures you could take to increase public safety?
You mean, outside of the police? That opens up a whole gamut of issues that takes you into the philosophical. As a majority Black city, we are number one*. Now, how do people interpret this? Probably that such a city is plagued with poverty, crime, declining education and quality of life because it’s Black.
In Newark or in Detroit, they expect government to be inefficient and corrupt because it’s majority Black. That’s why you’ve always seen me strive for excellence. I’ve always wanted to be an exception to that prevailing thought that because it’s Black it can’t be excellent and competent.
What we’ve got to do is deal with the inequalities of life that exist in many urban cities that disproportionately affect people of color. And that’s a long haul, like I said. Generational poverty is an albatross around the neck of Memphis. And it’s going to take economic growth and development and include a diverse population, improved education.
At the age of 83, do you feel fit for another term as mayor?
If I didn’t feel that my cognitive and physical abilities are not appropriate to go back, I wouldn’t do this. Thus far, God has blessed me to maintain a reasonably good cognitive ability and physical abilities. With age, everything declines. But for whatever reason, I still feel sharper than a lot of 30- and 40-year-olds.
You were concerned about your mother’s reactions to the tribulations?
Yeah, because so much was rolling off my back, and she worried about my having to handle it.
Okay. So we started best practices. So to answer your question, I would obviously stay abreast of best practices. I was studying cities and police departments getting good results. I’ve always done that.
Some cities have tried to respond to mental health crises with first responders who aren’t police officers. Is that a solution you’re interested in?
Just about a month ago, we looked at the organizational chart. I want to make sure that I understand the present organization and charter of the police department. In our society today, there’s suffering from mental health, and a lot of police officers are not educated. The other thing people don’t understand, too, is that a lot of individuals out here have all kinds of mental disabilities that the policeman, if they’re not well trained, they don’t know how to recognize. You have to broaden the training because they are running into some mental health issues that need to be addressed.
We’re gonna have a partnership with Memphis City Schools. We will have partnerships with nonprofits and with the Methodist health system in dealing with a variety of mental health issues. I want to have a partnership with the public school to increase the number of guidance counselors in schools.
How do you plan to engage young people to help them avoid gangs and criminal activity?
There’s a myriad of complex social, psychological factors involving youth and adults that society has to deal with. This is gonna require educated people, law enforcement people, the whole gamut of professionals to deal with the myriad of problems we have in this society.
Memphis always ranks poorly in its number of roadway deaths. Is there a way to make our streets safer without relying solely on increased enforcement?
The reckless driving in Memphis has reached epidemic proportions. I’ve never seen the level of reckless driving, inappropriate driving behavior, as I’m seeing on the expressway and streets. I’m so happy to see the increased level of highway patrol in our city. I will support that 100% — to increase the presence of highway patrolmen. They do it right.
What degree of collaboration should exist between the MPD and the sheriff’s department?
The operations of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department are dramatically different from MPD. The Memphis police department is a multifaceted, highly complex law enforcement unit, much broader than the sheriff’s department. Now they should have a partnership. I think they ought to work hand in hand. I The sheriff is the highest law enforcement official in the county. I think they ought to use resources when they are available to patrol in the city limits as well.
Can you give me a realistic change you can facilitate to help reduce car theft and property theft?
There’s some brands of cars that are [more] susceptible to car thieves than others. In fact, I think I read that our current mayor was joining with some other mayors who’re talking about suing automakers who make cars so easy to be stolen.
Would you be interested in joining?
Can you give me an idea for getting guns off Memphis streets?
I think that the legislative body in Tennessee is going to have to exercise more accountability and responsibility as we look at gun violence and gun control. So I’m for a lot of the reform measures. But within the powers of the executive branch, which the mayor is in, we just have to operate within the confines of the Constitution and state legislature.
Do you favor the referendum on gun-control measures put forth by the city council?
Oh, yeah, I support it, but it’s probably unrealistic. Say the referendum passes. State law has more authority than local law. And given the culture, it’s not going to pass the Tennessee legislature. I’m just simply saying that getting some reform past our Tennessee legislature looks bleak. Of course, I would be just as vigilant and confrontational as this group that went up there before the special session..
What, as specifically as possible, what are your thoughts about maintaining a curfew on Memphis youth?
I don’t know how effective curfews are. I don’t have pros and cons on curfews. Let me just say this: I would like to research cities that have curfew ordinances, a referendum on the book, to see how effective they are
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