Thursday, October 19, 2017

Trump-Sessions Block DOJ's Review of Memphis Police

The Department of Justice collaborative review of the Memphis Department of Police Services is dead in the water almost a year after it was announced with much fanfare.

MPD has entered a downsized deal with the office of Community Oriented Policing Services as the Trump administration has neutered the DOJ's efforts to improve community policing in Memphis and 14 other U.S. cities.
AG Sessions: "Course Correction"
New York Daily News Photo

Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month declared that the COPS office would pull back its Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance (CRI-TA) program which works with law enforcement agencies to recommend ways the agencies could improve policing practices and police-community relations.

What's left of the COPS office work with MPD is an offer of "technical assistance" -- basically a menu of training that MPD may request -- such as police response to mass demonstrations, officer safety and wellness and problem-solving techniques. 

What's gone are the findings and recommendations that COPS was to present to MPD, then to follow through with monitoring and assistance during a two-year project. To prepare that report, the COPS team had invested hundreds of hours, including trips to Memphis. Time also was devoted to the project by MPD and community organizations that had met with COPS. 

No such reports will be released to the public now, confirmed Valerie Jordan of the COPS communications division. "We're not going to give out that information," Jordan said. 

Director of Police Services Michael Rallings on Oct. 12 signed a whittled-down "Memorandum of Understanding" between the COPS office and the Memphis Police Department for the “Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance.”  This document “supersedes and replaces” the "Memorandum of Agreement" executed by Mayor Jim Strickland on March 3, 2017. Notably, the city of Memphis itself is not a party to this deal as the new MOU is not signed by Strickland.

Both documents are linked here:

Comparing the two documents simplistically -- beyond one being an "agreement" and the other an "understanding" -- the March deal has a list of 17 commitments on the part of the city, and the October "understanding" has five.

Notable changes include:

·      The earlier agreement provided for “full access” to records, and the new one provides records “as appropriate and needed.”

·      The city’s pledge of “willingness to implement the agreed upon reform recommendations, which will be based on professional standards, best practices, research...and the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing” has been scratched entirely.

·      The city’s agreement that “all reports will be publicly presented and widely disseminated by the COPS office” has been scratched. 

You get the idea.

In the new "understanding," the COPS office committed to the city to “complete all technical assistance efforts by August 2018.”

In a Sept. 15 DOJ press release Sessions  said the community policing office needed a “course correction” and should defer to local law enforcement to run and police their own shops.

“Changes to this program will fulfill my commitment to respect local control and accountability, while still delivering important tailored resources to local law enforcement to fight violent crime,” Sessions said. “This is a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”

Our story came about after years of following this subject for our doc, Who Will Watch the Watchers? and after cultivating off-the-record sources who will only talk on background. Local reporters don't have depth on this -- but they are not in position to, having to scramble from one shooting, to a car pileup, to whatever. Local media got it from us, because we wanted them to have it, because we thought the public should know. 

The city could have put out this information on Sept. 15, but they didn’t. Why not? Was it a comfortable reflex to hide information from the public? This was not even a negative story about Memphis; it was not the city’s or MPD’s fault.

But, the media got it wrong, sort of, and Strickland had it wrong, totally.

Strickland was interviewed by WMC and Local24 and told WMC, "I don't believe the program has changed. I believe the wording of the agreement has changed."

Well, words matter. Is Strickland like Trump, he has the best words?

The program is dead, over, muerte, no mas. It's not like a change; it's dead. Reporters did not challenge Strickland’s spin.

The city can request training from DOJ, and some good could still come from that. But there will be no review, no report, nothing that citizens could have learned from and used. What’s that word, oh, yeah, transparency.

We talked with Edward Stanton III, former U.S attorney for the Western District of Tennessee. Stanton was key to getting this started as he recommended the program to Rallings while the DOJ was investigating the shooting of Darrius Stewart by a Memphis officer.

"There were going to be boots on the ground, resources, funding," said a disappointed Stanton, who is passionate about the need for police accountability to improve community relations. Stanton was another casualty of the presidential election Nov. 8, and he resigned in February to join a Memphis law firm. 

The community was "buying in" and the city and the police chief were "all in when I was there," Stanton said. 

The next major step in the COPS office work with Memphis would have been its initial assessment of findings and recommendations. COPS team members had made several trips to Memphis, including public listening sessions last year, and they were in Memphis during the summer. For instance, in July they went on police ride-alongs and met with the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board and community organizations such as the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center and People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws. 

The COPS crew was tight-lipped and would not publicly comment on their work.
Keenon James of COPS team at July CLERB meeting

When goaded into standing up and saying something at the July CLERB meeting, Keenon James of the COPS office blandly offered, “We appreciate the opportunity to be here and be involved in the great things going on in the city of Memphis.”

That body of work is mostly down the drain. The COPS team would have made one more trip to Memphis before compiling their report. The knowledge that team members gained of MPD and the community -- including favorite barbecue eateries -- now down-shifts to background for any efforts going forward. Potentially, key objectives of the COPS assessment as released in May can carry over in the form of training and assistance in use of force, citizen complaints, citizen oversight of police and officer accountability. 

While the DOJ folks were in town, however, it seemed as though the city and the police department were striving to be on their best behavior. 

Mayor Strickland’s city-paid attorney Alan Crone made an unprecedented appearance at the July CLERB meeting which was attended by three members of DOJ staff. Crone made a lengthy speech, waxing and waning about the awesomeness of police oversight in Memphis and how the city and police were embracing it. (Locals in the room knew better, and we doubt the target audience bought it, either.)

Police chief Rallings made himself more visible, attending community meetings and stepping up public appearances.  In fact, on Saturday June 10 Rallings attended four community events, with an MPD photographer in tow to post photos on the police Facebook page.  Events included “Touch a Truck” downtown, where kids could play on fire trucks and police vehicles, and Reginald Johnson’s “Stop the Gun Violence” event in Frayser in honor of his son Samuel, whose murder down the street from his home is still an open case. 
Police chief pressing the flesh at Reginald Johnson's Stop the Violence Event   

When citizens opposed to Wal-Mart’s cheap-labor practices and the company’s investments in private prisons had widely posted on Facebook their intentions to have a “salsa dance party” inside a Memphis Wal-Mart, police and Wal-Mart management were waiting for them. Police gathered inside and outside the store and were fortified with about 16 cruisers in the parking lot.    

Wal-Mart store management was on the phone with corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, and they were told to get the police to “drag them out of there and arrest them, and anybody with them, and charge them up.”  While police shooed the band of salsa-playing “unshoppers” out of the store as they shouted, “boycott Wal-Mart,” no arrests were made.

In the Wal-Mart parking lot after the action was over, one of the organizers told police, "Thank you for not arresting us."

MPD rarely releases body-worn camera or in-car video footage. But police provided to local media a video clip of an officer's encounter with an African-American attorney who had complained he was racially profiled at a traffic stop in July. 

Ah, those were the days. It was Community Policing Summer in Memphis.

Delays and stops and starts plagued the COPS efforts with Memphis even before this “significant change,” as the DOJ put it.  After announcing the collaborative review on Oct. 26, 2016, the COPS office on March 3, 2017, put out a release saying the agreement with the city of Memphis was over because the city had not entered into a Memorandum of Agreement after all that time. Strickland’s PR rep said she was “shocked” at the announcement. Before the day was over, DOJ said it was a misunderstanding, and things were supposedly back on track after Strickland signed the agreement and dated it March 3.  Rallings had signed it on Jan. 13. 

Rallings and the city had invited the DOJ’s COPS office to work with MPD to make assessments and recommendations about the department.  The “collaborative reviews” are voluntary, and with many cities their requests of DOJ have followed infamous police killings of unarmed men, such as Philando Castile, shot and killed by a St. Anthony, MN, officer in July 2016.  In Memphis, officer Connor Schilling shot and killed unarmed backseat passenger Darrius Stewart July 17, 2015, after a traffic stop.  Of 16 cities and police departments which began collaborative reviews with COPS between 2012 and 2016, St. Anthony's was the last one, announced on Dec. 15, 2016. Only one has been completed, Las Vegas, which was the first such effort undertaken after an extreme number of officer-involved shootings. 

In the March agreement with the city of Memphis, the last item – item 17 – states, “Acknowledgement that participation in the CRI-TA program does not preclude any future investigations into the patterns and practices of the law enforcement agency by the DOJ Civil Rights Division.”

During the Obama administration, there were 25 “patterns and practices” investigations by the Civil Rights Division into law enforcement agencies – like with the voluntary reviews, many investigations were sparked by public outrage over police killings of unarmed young, black men, such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, and the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. Most of those investigations ended in consent decrees, in which the cities agreed to take certain reform measures and to pay for monitoring of their progress. 

As Memphis and other cities jumped on board the COPS collaborative review train, we speculated that their motivation in part was exactly what "item 17" referenced: It was to hedge against a patterns and practices investigation.  Memphis announced its participation just days before Trump was elected. We are left to wonder, Would the city and MPD have taken that step if they knew Hillary Clinton would not be around to continue President Obama's policies?

After the collaboration between COPS and MPD was announced last October, the COPS team came to Memphis and held two public listening sessions at which citizens aired their grievances with local policing in a setting absent of any uniformed law enforcement.  The consensus among citizens at the Nov. 30 meeting, which we filmed and posted, was that there is no realistic way to complain about the police. 
COPS team leader George Fachner listens to citizens Nov. 30, 2016   

The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board was revived by City Council ordinance in November, 2015, after having been quietly disbanded by Mayor A.C. Wharton in August, 2011. But the citizen oversight body can only make recommendations to the police chief and has no real authority other than to conduct monthly, public meetings and hear complaints from aggrieved citizens.  Police director Rallings has rejected every single recommendation thus far from CLERB.

In contrast to the pace of patterns and practices investigations launched during the Obama administration, expect none to happen under Trump.  In fact, Sessions has said DOJ would review existing consent decrees with cities and seek to roll them back if possible.  The DOJ under Trump-Sessions has been loudly all about the “law and order” rhetoric of longer sentences and stricter enforcement over Obama-era efforts to support community policing and to slow private prisons and mass incarceration. Sessions views the COPS office as adversarial to law enforcement, which should not be subjected to a federal watchdog.

Noble Wray was the highest ranking DOJ official at the city’s press conference announcement Oct. 26. The presidential election was held Nov. 8. Wray resigned from the DOJ before the week was out. 

Funding is expected to be cut to the COPS office and the Civil Rights Division – although COPS has provided many resources to law enforcement, boasting that it has funded 127,000 officer positions across about 13,000 law enforcement agencies. 

"We haven't gotten anything definite," the DOJ's Jordan said about possible funding and cuts. "We are staying with what they call a continuing resolution to keep going, until we find out something."

No collaborative reviews have been undertaken in 2017, and the last report on the subject of collaborative review was published Jan. 17, three days before the presidential inauguration and as Obama DOJ appointees such as Civil Rights Division head Vanita Gupta cleaned out their offices. 

When the COPS team held its last listening session in November, we asked their PR rep Mary Brandenberger what was in store for them under Trump as many DOJ staffers were polishing up their resumes.

“I wish somebody would tell me,” said Brandenberger. 

This spring, Branderberger apparently caught a version of Trump's most obnoxious line. Last we heard she is no longer with the COPS office.

Here are links to our earlier reports and stories from various media and researchers:

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