Thursday, November 17, 2016

Police Oversight Board Validates Citizens Who Complained of Abuses

Citizen oversight of police in Memphis reached a milestone tonight as CLERB said citizens who were improperly arrested in highly visible cases were mistreated by police a second time when MPD internal affairs denied their
CLERB chairman Ralph White,
administrator Virginia Wilson, Paul Garner
complaints that police had abused them.

The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board voted unanimously that Memphis Department of Police Services Inspectional Services Bureau --- aka police internal affairs – erred in rejecting the complaints of activist Paul Garner and Frayser resident Reginald Johnson.

Garner’s arrest and arrests days later at a Trolley Night hip-hop event led to a movement to bring back the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, which had been secretly disbanded by Mayor A.C. Wharton’s administration in 2011. 

Garner, an organizing coordinator at Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, and John Holle were arrested for filming police in front of Manna House homeless refuge Oct. 21, 2013, although officers charged Garner with disorderly conduct and “obstructing a passageway.”  Holle, a Manna House volunteer, had just opened up for the evening meal when officers showed up looking for a man.  Holle told officers they could not enter the property without a warrant, which did not prevent police from searching the place but which apparently angered the officers.  Police confiscated Holle’s and Garner’s phones and at one point told them it was illegal to record video in Memphis without a film permit. 

Garner and Holle spent about 17 hours in jail and in police custody before the media found out and charges were dropped. 

Helping the citizen oversight board make a decision was a video taken by Holle which showed a Memphis officer saying, “I understand you’re videoing, and it’s on video, so we’re going to take you to jail for obstructing highway passageway.” 

Garner also laid out for the citizen board how the process of complaining to police about abuses is a difficult one with many practical barriers to citizens.  CLERB members, including CLERB Chairman Ralph White, said they would propose policy changes to Director of Police Services Michael Rallings to address those concerns.

The board will next present their findings to Rallings and to Mayor Jim Strickland.  According to the CLERB ordinance, Railings has 10 days of receipt of CLERB’s information to respond to the oversight board with the actions he will take, if any. 

Reginald Johnson tells his story at CLERB meeting
Johnson’s case also got media attention when in February he said police arrested him after they entered his house without permission and knocked him down, beat him in the face and back and maced him repeatedly. 

Charges against Johnson were dismissed and his bail money was refunded, he said, after officers failed to appear in court. 

Johnson’s incident was a case of “no good deed goes unpunished.”  Johnson had called 9-1-1 when a man knocked on his door asking for help after having been shot.  The sleeve of the man’s sweater was covered in blood.

However, after police arrived, three officers entered Johnson’s house and beat him and maced him, he said.  A video from Johnson’s outdoor surveillance system showed that seven or more officers appeared at his house but paid little attention to the man who had been shot.  Johnson said he believed police beat him because he had been critical of police for not actively investigating the murder of his son Oct. 31, 2014.

“They knocked me down, then beat me, maced me.  One of them lifted up my head to mace me in the eyes again,” Johnson told the CLERB members. 

Johnson said he is afraid of police now and will never get involved again with police, even if he sees a crime.

Johnson said he was hesitant to complain to CLERB about how he was treated for fear of further retaliation in the form of police not actively investigating his son’s murder. 

“It looks like the police who showed up at your house had a different agenda, other than the man who had been shot,” said CLERB Chairman White after watching video which showed Johnson’s front yard, porch, front door and street scene.  There was no video from inside the home, where Johnson said police attacked him without provocation.

“The police entered your house without asking permission or having any reason to go into your house,” said board member John Marek.

The injured man is shown talking with police in the front yard of Johnson’s home, although he entered Johnson’s home twice.  Johnson said he wanted the man to stay outside to keep from bleeding on his carpet and also so paramedics could more easily find him.

Some board members asked to hear Johnson's 9-1-1 call, but police failed to provide it in spite of CLERB's requests, said CLERB investigator Arthur Robinson. 

“I’m grateful that I had video to tell the truth, because, otherwise it might have just been my word against the police,” Johnson said after the meeting.  Johnson said he had met with Director Rallings and other police administrators in an effort to identify and charge his son’s murderer.

“I have spent thousands of dollars to get enhanced video, which they could have done,” said Johnson.  “The police have an idea of who did it,” but no charges have been filed.

Samuel Johnson was 21 years old when he was shot and killed on Halloween 2014.  Johnson and others recently held a candlelight vigil to commemorate the anniversary of Samuel’s death.

Reginald Johnson worked 29 years for The Hershey Company in South Memphis but retired in order to work on his son's case.  He was to meet with homicide investigators Friday morning in hopes of making progress toward justice for his son.  

CLERB also reviewed a case continued from October’s meeting in which Robert Howard, a leukemia patient, said an officer kicked him in the back and chained him around a blood clot on his leg.  Howard said that photos of his injuries which MPD provided to CLERB were black and white and did not properly show his bruises from being kicked.  The photos were taken in color, Howard said.

“You’re being duped,” Howard told CLERB.  Certain video evidence which may have been available after the incident no longer existed, according to CLERB investigator Robinson.

CLERB agreed with internal affairs that Howard’s complaint was “not sustained,” which in police lingo means there was insufficient evidence to prove the complaint.

Earlier this year CLERB heard its first citizen complaint case since Aug. 11, 2011.  Garner's complaint was only the second one heard since 2011.  Citizens may appeal to the citizen board after first complaining through MPD internal affairs.  Of the four cases which now have been heard by CLERB this year, the board has decided in favor of citizens twice, overturning internal affairs findings of “not sustained,” and has twice agreed with ISB (Inspectional Services Bureau) that there was not enough conclusive evidence.

CLERB was disbanded in 2011 by Mayor A.C. Wharton's administration, without public notice or approval of city council, which created CLERB.  A lengthy campaign to bring back and strengthen CLERB ended in an updated city ordinance approved last November. 

Four days after Garner and Holle were arrested, on Oct. 25, 2013, police arrested Jeffrey Lichtenstein for filming police who roughly busted up a Trolley Night hip-hop cypher.  Police also arrested Nile Sugarmon, son of a Memphis judge and grandson of civil rights leader Russell Sugarmon Jr.   Charges were later dismissed or not prosecuted. 

Those arrests and media attention pushed Director of Police Services Toney Armstrong to publish a policy Dec. 17, 2013, that said filming and criticizing police are lawful acts, so long as citizens do not interfere with police activity. 

The movement to bring back the citizen oversight board is chronicled in the documentary feature Who Will Watch the Watchers?   The film also examines the increasing ways citizens are able to see video of police abuses; First and Fourth Amendment issues of filming police and the level of force that may be used to stop a fleeing suspect; Black Lives Matter; grass roots organizing, and how institutional forces including politicians work to thwart citizens. 

The Department of Justice may look into CLERB as part of a “collaborative review” announced in October by DOJ’s Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS).  The DOJ, at no charge to the city and with the cooperation of MPD and city administration, will make an assessment of police practices and offer recommendations. 

At an October press conference in Memphis, the COPS policing practices and accountability initiatives chief, Noble Wray, said a blueprint for procedural justice and best practices is the report of The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, convened by President Obama in 2015.  The report says police culture must reflect that law enforcement officers are guardians, not warriors, and that citizens are more likely to obey the law when they believe police are acting legitimately.   

One recommendation of the report is that cities have an effective citizen police oversight board. 

Two days after the presidential election, Wray resigned DOJ, according to a DOJ-COPS office spokesperson today.  George Fachner of the COPS program is now the lead man for the Memphis endeavor.  Two public meetings were proposed when the Memphis review was announced, but it seemed those particulars were now up in the air, based on our conversation with the COPS spokesperson. 

We have sought to contact Fachner for further information.

CLERB has yet to roll out a website as was directed in the ordinance more than a year ago.  Some CLERB members recently completed citizen police academy training which also was required in the ordinance.  

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