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Civilian oversight of law enforcement needed more than ever in Memphis

  • Written by Brad Watkins

civilian 600In 1994, the controversial shooting of Jesse Bogand – a 68 year old resident of Orange Mound – outraged the citizens of Memphis. This and other similar incidents pushed the Memphis City Council to create a Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), which according to the City Of Memphis website would be "an independent, non-police Mayoral Agency with...the power to receive, investigate, hear cases, make findings and recommend action on complaints."

Though seemingly a positive step forward for our city, many have lamented that CLERB has insufficient power to accomplish its assigned tasks. For instance, CLERB can only hear a case after the Memphis Police Department's Internal Affairs has completed their investigation. Moreover, CLERB has no subpoena powers, and as such MPD officers' presence at a hearing is purely voluntary.

More troubling is the fact that the extent of CLERB's disciplinary power is a non-binding recommendation to MPD.

In 2008, prompted by the video of the savage beating of Duanna Johnson, a transgender woman then in MPD custody, Councilwoman Janis Fullilove introduced a resolution calling for an audit of all Internal Affairs (IA) procedures as well as CLERB. This audit, presented in 2009, verified that CLERB was unable to function as a proper independent investigative agency. Councilwoman Fullilove introduced a second resolution calling for the creation of an ad-hoc committee to bring recommendations regarding CLERB. However, this committee, has yet to be convened.

Furthermore, it has recently come to light that two years ago, our CLERB was disbanded by the Wharton administration. This occurred without public notice or input of any kind, nor were the members of the Memphis City Council notified. To this day City Council still assigns a liaison to CLERB and according to council members continues to allocate funding for CLERB in the city budget. The webpage quoted above is still active on the city website, though the phone number goes to the Memphis Legal Department where it is answered by someone with nothing to do with CLERB. And yet our leaders wonder why the public seems so cynical without faith and trust in the government.

We currently have a police department with zero civilian oversight. So if someone wishes to file a complaint, that individual must go, in person, to either an MPD precinct workstation or to IA. Many know first hand that this process is long and frustrating.

In 2012, Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality – H.O.P.E. – had its members harassed by officers as they left their weekly meeting at Manna House. Three H.O.P.E. members filed complaints with MPD, but after nine months of calls and emails they received nothing but an ambiguous letter from IA.

They then had to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the officer's personnel file. This took a week and half and cost $50 in printing fees. It took all of this simply to discover the officer had received a written reprimand. This entire debacle could have been avoided were it not for IA's policy that disciplinary hearings be held without the presence of the citizen who lodged the complaint in the first place.

For Memphis to move forward, the breach between the community and MPD must be bridged through a process of accountability that can bring balance to the system and restore confidence. This is why Memphis United was formed, a grassroots coalition of organizations and concerned citizens.

Memphis United has drafted a resolution, wherein we urge that there be nine public forums in each council district, co-hosted by Memphis United and the respective councilmember, to hear from constituents as to what they envision for the role and function of CLERB in Memphis. Subsequently, Memphis United would consolidate feedback and present our recommendations to the Council this June so that they can act with the broadest array of community support and input possible.

We hope that you will join this effort. When we work as one, the community wins.

(Submitted by Brad Watkins on behalf of Memphis United.)

(Memphis United includes The Memphis Center for Independent Living, Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, Subliminal Thought, The South Main Cypher Series, Memphis Bus Riders Union, Pro-Memphis Project, Manna House Memphis, ADAPT of Tennessee, The Bridge and the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. The coalition meets Wednesdays at 6 p.m. at Caritas Village, 2509 Harvard, in the Binghampton community.)

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