Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong says it is time for the African-American community to quit reacting and take action to fight the growing pattern of youth violence in the city.
"The sad reality is that it takes an incident like this to raise awareness," said Armstrong, referencing the Sept. 24 fatal shooting of 15-year-old Justin Thompson by off-duty police officer Terrance Shaw. "I feel like there are things as a community that we should be doing now to prevent us from having to march for another young man who may be the victim of a shooting, not by a police officer, but by another young man like him."
Armstrong's candid interview Tuesday (Oct. 9) with The New Tri-State Defender came not only in the wake of the Thompson shooting but amid a string of highly-troubling incidents involving MPD personnel. Even as the interview was underway, another officer, Paula Jamerson, was being processed downstairs on four counts of obtaining a controlled substance by fraud, deception or a forged prescription.
Meanwhile, the TBI continues its investigation of the Thompson homicide, with Shaw suspended and still on payroll. Armstrong, who called in the TBI, has said Shaw was the apparent victim of a robbery attempt.
"I hate to keep referring to this young man that has lost his life, but I've seen his Facebook page and it readily displayed the path he was on," said Armstrong. "Sadly, it's a moot point, but like so many of our young men today, it could only end up in three ways: jail, him taking someone's life or him getting his life taken.
"And it's sad to say that such an outcome is getting to be the norm for so many black kids," said Armstrong. "There should have been some efforts to rescue this young man from the lifestyle he had chosen. We're talking about the middle of the night (on the night of the shooting) —why is he not home?"
He keeps trying to soften the message, but cannot.
"At some point, the parents of today have got to step up and take control of their kids lives. Kids nowadays face a lot more outside influences today than when I was growing up, such as the negative message in today's music, the influence of social media, gangs and more," Armstrong said.
"Now you can ride down any major thoroughfare in this city on the weekends and see a funeral procession of another African-American male whose life has been (unnecessarily) taken. It is just so sad that we appear to have lost a generation."
'I hate crooked cops'
Armstrong had not quite settled into the Police Director's chair last year when – during an interview with The New Tri-State Defender (Mar 18,2011) – he seemed to foreshadow what he now faces.
"You are going to have those officers who go to work every day and go above and beyond what they what they are supposed to do. And you are going to have those that stray," Armstrong said at the time. "I can't promise you that a year or two or three years from now that down the line there will be no other incident."
Armstrong did not bring up the latest arrest during Tuesday's interview, but he did allude to the recent spate of officers caught on the wrong side of the law.
"You have to remember that none of it is ever a surprise to me," he said. "We are the ones who initiate the investigations most of the times and my office is informed of and approves every move made during the investigation. I hate crooked cops."
He affirmed that he believes Shaw's assertion that he was reacting to an attempted armed robbery. And he acknowledged what some saw as a public dustup between him and Mayor AC Wharton Jr. over the condition of the Memphis Police Department.
"We were good from the beginning, it was just a disagreement, nothing unusual when you are running a department as large and complex as the police department," Armstrong said.
"When he hired me for the job he knew I was not the yes-man type and I think he appreciates that about me. I certainly respect him and it's passed. It will probably happen again, but again that's normal. Both of us are adult professionals who respect each other's work."
'The help of citizens'
"I just returned from the International Association of Police Chiefs conference (held in San Diego from Sept. 29 to Oct 3). New York City's Chief of Police made a statement that a poll revealed that 90 percent of every aspect of law enforcement is the responsibility of the police department, but it's not. It's a collaborative effort," said Armstrong.
"That's why we started COPS, Community Oriented Policing, to bring back community policing where the officers would know the neighborhood and people would know them. Whether it's blight or gangs, we're going to take the lead in cleaning up communities and we have to have the help of citizens."
People who see such help as "snitching" feel an entirely different way, said Armstrong, "when it comes to them or their loved ones being the victim of a crime, and especially a violent crime and you find yourself needing help from the same people that you refused to help."
He reflected on his own upbringing.
"At that time I thought my mother was crazy. I'm serious. She had a chip on her shoulder that you weren't going to run over her because she was a woman. Plus she was the oldest of her brothers and sisters and raised them. I'm not going to sit here and lie like I was some kind of perfect kid, but I didn't get into too much trouble because I never knew what would be the consequences of my actions," he said.
"I didn't have a father and don't even know who he is. I've never actually been disciplined by a man in my life, but my mother did not play. We lived in Dixie Homes, and it was no paradise. Back then, if a kid 18 to 24 lost his life it was big news that would shut down the community (with concern)."
Looking ahead, Armstrong said, "I will be speaking with a group of kids at Juvenile Court tomorrow and part of my message to them is that none of us were born with a silver spoon in our mouths, but at the end of the day you let that motivate you.
"I remember when my mother worked three jobs to keep a roof over our heads. She not only concentrated on what we could become, but what we could not become."