Thursday, May 10, 2018

Police Oversight Board Demands Respect -- even if Mayor has to Replace the Police Chief

Dismissed by the police director and diminished by the mayor, the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board sought to find its footing in a meeting of firsts today.

CLERB members voted 10-0 to appeal to Mayor Jim Strickland to support the relevance of the board, calling for the replacement of Police Director Michael Rallings if necessary, and they voted unanimously to subpoena four officers who allegedly beat and maced Marcus Walker and his nephew in 2011 in an “initiation” type assault.
 Marcus Walker explains what police did to him seven years ago

Rallings has rejected every single CLERB finding that disagreed with police internal affairs and every recommendation about certain training or discipline of officers. The board has no independent authority to discipline officers and may do no more than make recommendations to the police director.

“Director Rallings is all but ignoring the board’s recommendations,” the board wrote in a letter which will go out to Mayor Strickland. “Unfortunately, Director Rallings has chosen…to render the board ineffective by rejecting all of our recommendations. Some of these cases involved unquestionable video footage, and it is beyond absurd that none of our recommendations have been accepted.”
CLERB member John Marek, Marcus Walker listen to discussion

“The members of CLERB volunteer our time, and currently, it is being wasted,” the letter to Strickland continues. “CLERB needs one of four things to take place before our board can be effective:

“1) Director Rallings to be reasonable and at least meet us in the middle on our decisions (compromise); 2) A new police director who will work with us; 3) A new ordinance that gives CLERB binding decision-making power, or 4) an amendment to the current ordinance, which gives appellate power to the mayor over the police director’s decisions.”

The request to subpoena officers is the first under the latest ordinances, since CLERB was revived in 2015 and its ordinance amended in 2016. CLERB was secretly disbanded in 2011 by Mayor A.C. Wharton’s administration and was only brought back after a strong grassroots campaign led by Memphis United and Paul Garner, organizing director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. The letter to Strickland was the first formal notice to the mayor about CLERB being disrespected -- although board members had been discussing it for a year.  

The citizen review board itself has no authority to subpoena witnesses or documents, per ordinance. The process to obtain subpoenas is a convoluted and political one which requires CLERB to make a request through City Council. Citizen review boards in Atlanta and Knoxville have independent subpoena power.

Today’s meeting was held at the Orange Mound Community Center, supposedly in an outreach effort to have meetings in various locations other than the usual meeting place downtown at City Hall. However, the CLERB administrator apparently has no PR skills or awareness, and she does not publicize or promote CLERB activities or meetings -- there's that, and perhaps the administration's instruction is to keep this whole police oversight thing on the down-low, anyway. The only “notice” of a CLERB meeting is a website posting. Only one citizen, other than persons with a vested interest, attended today’s meeting – and he is the one who petitioned CLERB to hold a meeting at the Orange Mound Center.
CLERB members deliberate at the Orange Mound Community Center
The Atlanta Citizen Review Board, on the other hand, has used up to seven billboards around the community to publicize citizen rights events at Atlanta libraries.

In the letter to Strickland, CLERB also “formally requests meetings with both the mayor’s office and city council. The above requests are urgently needed."

“Memphis has not experienced anything like what has been seen in Ferguson, Charlotte, or Los Angeles, and CLERB would like to be one of the tools the city uses to prevent such mistrust from boiling over,” CLERB explained.

“Mayor Strickland and the Memphis City Council, we need your help to ensure we can be effective in bringing our population and police together as one. An effective CLERB would be good for our police and our citizens.”

The board also asks that letters to and from the police director be posted to the CLERB website, which is required by city ordinance. Although the current iteration of the police oversight board was made law in November, 2015, and a functional website was required in the ordinance, the CLERB website was only launched last month. No case information is found on the website – although it would be instructive to citizens to have an idea of what sort of cases were coming before the board and how CLERB was regarding them.

Rallings stunned and disappointed CLERB members last year by rejecting the first four cases the citizen board overturned – or disagreed with the police Inspectional Services Bureau, which had found the citizen complaints were “not sustained,” or had “insufficient evidence.” Per the current city ordinance, citizens must first make a complaint to MPD internal affairs before making a complaint with CLERB.

“I was insulted. We all should have been insulted,” CLERB chairman Rev. Ralph White said at CLERB’s May, 2017, meeting after seeing Rallings’ out-of-hand rejections.

CLERB later rewrote letters to Rallings, adding details, and asked Rallings to compel officers to appear before the board in Walker’s case. Rallings wrote back on July 14, 2017, that “under no circumstances” would he require officers to appear in any cases, and that the board should pursue the subpoena process if they wanted to see officers.

Police blocked Walker in a private driveway just before midnight, then held him through early morning hours of June 3, 2011. He had given a ride home to his nephew, then 18 years old, Christopher Redmond, who lived with his mother. Redmond had been working a late shift for a painting contractor.

An officer taunted the young man by shaking a can of mace toward him and making “smart comments,” Walker told the board, in repeating his account of the incident for the second time. Police gave Walker no reason for blocking him in the driveway for about 30 minutes, until other officers could arrive and began beating the young man and Walker in what Walker described as an “initiation” ritual.

“This was planned,” Walker said. “They told me my license was in order and my record was clean, and they never gave us any reason for stopping us and keeping us there."

Two black officers were involved in the initial stop, then two white officers came putting on gloves and “smiling,” Walker said, before they pulled his nephew out of the back seat of Walker's 1998 Chevrolet Suburban and beat, handcuffed and arrested him. When Walker got out of the vehicle to go to the house and get Redmond's mother, police handcuffed him, swept his feet out from under him and maced him several times, he said. Officers charged Walker with disorderly conduct, which was dismissed in court. Redmond was similarly charged, and his case also was dismissed. 

Walker's son was a third passenger in the Suburban, and police put him in the back of a squad car. He was not charged, beaten or maced. Police let him out in time to see his father being beaten and his eyes burning from the mace.

"My son had tears in his eyes, not from mace, but from seeing what police were doing to me," Walker said.

“I would like to ask them (police officers) some questions, myself,” said Walker, who also pointed out discrepancies in the time logs of police documents. “They said they only stopped us for 15 minutes. But it was more than an hour.”

As compelling as was Walker’s description of what happened to him, his son and his nephew, MPD’s investigation documents were stilted, and officers contradicted each other. The investigator led some officers to spend a lot of interview time insinuating that Walker’s nephew was an angry young man. Redmond was a back-seat passenger and was admittedly scared about what police were going to do to them, Walker said.

“They had just met President Obama,” Walker told the CLERB board last May. “Both my son and nephew went to Booker T. Washington, and they had shook the President’s hand. That gave them some hope. And I told that to the officers that night, Look how you’ve got these young minds looking at the police now.”

Mayor Strickland refused to reappoint civil rights attorney Bruce Kramer, arguably CLERB’s strongest member, after his term expired in August. Kramer was appointed by Mayor Wharton, and at the time Kramer pointed out to then-city attorney Herman Morrison that he had in the past sued the city for constitutional violations.

“That’s exactly why we want you on the board,” Kramer says Morrison told him at the time. “You understand these types of issues.”

However, after Strickland and the police were exposed in February, 2017, for having a “black list” of citizen activists who had committed no crimes, Kramer filed a lawsuit on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and cited the 1978 court order in which the Department of Justice forbade the city from gathering “domestic intelligence” on citizens.

As presently constituted, the CLERB board is authorized only to hear citizen complaints and to make recommendations – which Director Rallings has demonstrated he will reject in every case. Rallings does not attend CLERB meetings and thus does not hear testimony from complainants or the questions asked by board members.

CLERB has been cautious and conservative in its findings, giving police every benefit of the doubt, thoroughly examining witnesses, and engaging in prolonged deliberations. For example, while questioning complainants and witnesses, CLERB members at times have indicated that if a citizen used a curse word or showed emotion, that could have provoked an officer; or if a passenger did not have an ID on him, that could have led to an abusive chain of events. Several cases CLERB has heard involved police shaking down passengers for ID, although only a driver is required to have an ID in the form of a driver’s license.

It will be interesting to see how City Council handles this first request for a subpoena of police witnesses. It is likely to become a hot potato for the elected officials, and police administration and the Memphis Police Association will probably oppose it.

MPA President Mike Williams has said that if officers are subpoenaed to testify, they will show up with attorneys and take the Fifth Amendment, refusing to testify.

Police generally believe no one except other police are qualified to police the police.

While the right of CLERB to have independent subpoena power has been the main point of conflict among citizens, elected officials, and police, we believe the ordinance needs these amendments to make the board's work meaningful:

1--CLERB's recommendations about discipline and training should be binding and not subject to rejection by the police director. Only termination should remain in the province of the police chief. 
2--Citizens should be provided with attorneys at no charge to help navigate the process.
3--Citizens should be able to file complaints directly with CLERB, without having to first go through MPD's internal affairs process.

CLERB next meets Thursday, June 14, at Memphis City Hall in Room 477.

Marcus Walker’s May, 2017, video of testimony before CLERB:

Atlanta Citizen Review Board website:

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