Friday, May 24, 2019

Slicing and Dicing Citizen Oversight of Police in Tennessee and the USA

Toward the end of the day, standing at the back of the room, Community Oversight Board First Vice-Chair Jamel Campbell-Gooch expressed the takeaway from NACOLE’s regional meeting in Nashville May 17:
“Listening to everyone, we see there are so many different ways to go about this,” said Campbell-Gooch. In Tennessee vernacular, we might say, “More than one way to skin a cat.” By whatever description, this was not only a “takeaway” – it was an understatement. 
Leading officials of community police oversight boards from across the country gathered at Nashville’s main library for a regional meeting of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. They came from Denver, Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, Washington DC, Knoxville, Memphis, Nashville and elsewhere for the one-day event. 
Nashville’s COB, voted into power by a public referendum in November, was the shiny, new player at the event. Many COB members and its newly appointed executive director, William Weeden, showed up to soak in whatever they could as COB establishes how they will operate. So did several community members whose activism through Community Oversight Now had launched the referendum.
What Campbell-Gooch meant was this: There are many different “models” for a community to operate a citizen board. Taking in the smorgasbord of how citizen boards operate, in all their nuances, was the day’s food for thought. 
A citizen board, for example, may take on the role of directly investigating every single citizen complaint about police abuses and mistreatment. An example would be the  Chicago Office of Police Accountability, which has a staff of 150, including 90 investigators, and an $18-million budget, according to its chief administrator, Sydney Roberts.  Citizen complaints first come directly through COPA. They fielded 4,200 complaints in 2018, she said, and 70 per cent of those they forwarded along to Chicago Police Department internal affairs.

Nicholas Mitchell of Denver, Sydney Roberts of Chicago and Nicolle Barton of St. Louis share their experiences with citizen oversight

COPA investigates such things as shootings by police, showing up alongside Chicago Police Department officers and command staff to interview witnesses, go to the hospital, etc.  Although Chicago had other oversight mechanisms prior to COPA, Robert’s office was established by ordinance in 2017 and after the 2014 police shooting of Laquan McDonald. That led to an investigation by the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division of CPD’s “patterns and practices” and a consent decree which became effective March 1.
At the other end of the spectrum in its authority and size was Memphis’ Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), which has a staff of two and is allowed to hear citizen complaints only after police internal affairs has completed its investigation and notified the complaining citizens of its decision. CLERB Administrator Virginia Wilson represented the Memphis board and served on a panel at the NACOLE meeting.
While police unions, associations and Fraternal Order of Police fight citizen oversight tooth and nail, Knoxville Chief of Police Eve Thomas showed up at the Tennessee General Assembly in March to object to a GOP bill which limited oversight. The bill bans citizen oversight boards from having direct subpoena authority such as Nashville’s COB and Knoxville’s Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC) have by local ordinance.

Knoxville Chief of Police Eve Thomas

Thomas also was the only active member of law enforcement to show up at the NACOLE event. She had some memorable insights.
“I had an ‘aha’ moment. My ‘aha’ moment was in 1994,” Thomas told the gathering.  “I made a stop. It was a gentleman of color. I was very professional.
“At the end, he said, ‘You were respectful. You did everything right. But you were rude.’”
Thomas was puzzled.
“You didn’t ask me how my day was going,” the man told her. 
I touched base with Chief Thomas again yesterday to make sure I understood her meaning.
“It was more of a realization of the need to be courteous and more thoughtful in my interactions,” she said, “rather than ‘business-like.’ I learned from this gentleman to put more emphasis on treating everyone the way I want to be treated rather than being sure I say the right things  -- in a robotic manner.”
Thomas said she was hopeful that today’s young officers will be less prejudiced than previous generations.
“They are great on the technology,” Thomas said. “The thing is, we have to train them how to communicate with people.”
However, it’s the young officers, such as in their mid-twenties, who seem to most often shoot young, black men who are trying to get away. Talking would have been a great option over shooting. In fact, a key characteristic of a successful officer is an outgoing personality. 
If the takeaway of the day was variety, there was consensus on many subjects, such as community outreach, opposition from the FOP and the race-based source of most complaints. 

NACOLE Regional Training and Networking in Nashville May 17, 2019

Nicolle Barton, executive director, City of St. Louis Civilian Oversight Board, was formerly a sworn officer, and she worked in the criminal justice system in the probation department in Ferguson, MO, when officer Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown Jr. Aug. 9, 2014. As a former officer, Barton gives lie to FOP’s cliché complaint that only police can police the police.
“The FOP fought against us from the beginning. Our FOP rep had a physical altercation with an activist at a Town Hall meeting,” Barton said.
“They think, ‘Why would a body of citizens who don’t know anything about what we do tell us what to do?’”
Even worse: “During peaceful protests after (St. Louis) officer Jason Stockley was acquitted of murdering Anthony Lamar Smith, police had undercover officers in the crowd to watch citizen protesters. 
“Police maced and beat protesters – and even one of our own undercover officers!” Barton said.
“Continued community outreach is important,” Barton noted. “I attend public safety meetings, Town Hall meetings, neighborhood meetings. I am a member of the Association of Latin Professionals.”
Susan Hutson is the Independent Police Monitor in New Orleans, serving since 2010 to oversee the city’s consent decree with the DOJ.  She spoke about their mediation program between officers and citizens.
“At the heart of every single one of these conversations is race,” Hutson said. “The officer thinks, Well, you were walking around with your pants hanging down.”
Panelists also agreed that members of the community should be at the forefront of policy making.
“People should have a seat at the table on policy, not just a bunch of experts,” said Denver Independent Monitor Nicholas Mitchell.
“We need to meet the community where they are, where things are happening,” said COPA’s Roberts. “We need to establish those relationships ahead of time.”
Memphis’ CLERB and Nashville’s COB, among other oversight boards, have called on the Atlanta Citizen Review Board as a resource. CLERB investigator Arthur Robinson spent a few days in Atlanta in 2017 studying their process. We talked with Samuel Lee Reid II, ACRB’s executive director, during a break in the meeting. We will give him the last word, along with a link to our video interview.

ACRB Executive Director Samuel Lee Reid II

“These oversight boards grow out of something that happened,” Reid said. “And then the community demands it.” 
But later, apathy can set in, Reid said, “and the community moves onto something else… We have to keep the community engaged and our work fresh.” 
One example of outreach was a short video that ACRB produced, “Don’t Run,” urging citizens not to run from police. “Running away” has triggered an emotionally wrong and unconstitutional impulse in officers who have shot and killed non-violent citizens who were trying to get away. The list is long, but it includes Daniel Hambrick in Nashville, Darrius Stewart in Memphis and Justus Howell in Zion, IL.

Atlanta oversight board developed ‘Don’t Run’ video

ACRB also puts on know-your-rights workshops, which not only explain the rights citizens have, but the responsibilities citizens have.
“We do the know-your-rights workshops at libraries, churches. We will come to your family barbecue,” Reid said. “We will go anywhere, any time. That’s how important it is.” 
Our feature documentary, Who Will Watch the Watchers? examines citizen oversight of police, drilling down on the Memphis movement to bring back its CLERB, which had been secretly disbanded by Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton in 2011. The film also takes on profiling, filming police, the First Amendment in the Trump era and other contemporary issues.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

One Year Later, CLERB Still 'Testing' Subpoenas of Police

One year after voting to do it, the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board has been unable to obtain subpoenas of Memphis police officers who beat and maced Marcus Walker and his nephew in a 2011 cop “initiation.”

'They had just met President Obama,' Marcus Walker explains to CLERB member Casey Bryant April 13, 2017
Photo by Jacqueline Quintanar for Moore Media Images
CLERB chair Casey Bryant, who in March said she would resign if she had not taken action by the time of the next bi-monthly meeting, told CLERB members today that she had written a letter to Memphis City Council liaison Jamita Swearengen on April 18. Bryant said since then she had reached out to Swearengen with no results and that the next step in the subpoena process is for CLERB to petition the City Council directly. 

Walker said that police stopped him -- for no clear reason, even the police admit in their reports -- as he drove a family member home from work late one night in South Memphis. Then, they held him for about 30 minutes until other officers – who were just off their shift and on overtime – showed up putting on gloves.  

Walker said his nephew, 18-year-old Christopher Redmond, asked officers, "Why are you fucking with us?" One answered, "Because we're the police," and then dragged Redmond out of Walker's vehicle. Two cops beat and maced Redmond, who was coming home after getting off his shift as a painter. The officer who first held the three men then maced and knocked down Walker when he sought to get Redmond's mother. Walked called it a cop “initiation.”   

CLERB’s meeting came one day after Gov. Bill Lee signed into law a bill the Tennessee General Assembly passed to limit the powers of citizen oversight of law enforcement.

House Bill 0658 and state senate companion bill SB 1407 came on the heels of Nashville’s new Community Oversight Board being voted into law in a November public referendum. Republican legislators rushed to block citizens’ authority over law enforcement – who are paid by citizens to “protect and serve.” (Who’s the boss here? is a good question.) 

The bill states that oversight boards have no authority other than to make recommendations to law enforcement and that they may not issue subpoenas or compel testimony. 

The Memphis CLERB ordinance does not give the board direct authority to compel evidence and issue subpoenas, but it prescribes a convoluted process whereby CLERB goes through its appointed liaison from City Council, who then must present the request to the full council. 

CLERB had voted last May to begin the subpoena process as a “test case” of their authority – or lack thereof – to compel officers to appear. The vote was to subpoena four officers as Walker wanted the opportunity to question them face-to-face. Here is Bryant's letter to Swearengen.  She requests the appearance of two officers and a lieutenant who showed up later.

In a lawsuit against the city of Memphis after police beat two former University of Memphis football players on Beale Street on July 4, 2011, information was revealed about “choir practice,” frequent after-hours gatherings of Memphis officers to vent among themselves.  Walker said police actions from his experience reminded him of such a cop ritual as “choir practice” or “initiation.” 

“I would like to ask them (police officers) some questions, myself,” Walker said at CLERB’s May 10, 2018, meeting. Walker 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 in the early morning hours of June 3, 2011, MPD’s investigation documents were somewhat jumbled, 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 the police were doing with them, Walker said.

CLERB voted to sustain Walker's complaint and wrote to MPD Director Mike Rallings with some recommendations about training and discipline of the officers who were involved. However, like with every other recommendation CLERB has sent to Rallings, the police chief rejected it and stuck by his officers' stories of what happened.

“They had just met President Obama,” Walker told the CLERB board last May and when he first testified before CLERB on April 13, 2017. 

“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.”

In today’s meeting, members heard no cases but engaged in some soul-searching about their mission; the rejection of every single one of their recommendations to the police chief, and how to gain credibility in the community. 

CLERB this year has gone to a schedule of meeting only every other month, and they state that the number of complaints they receive is down. That indicates that citizens do not know about CLERB or do not view it as having any authority to hold police accountable, Bryant said. CLERB was unable to conduct an official meeting in March because not enough members showed up to make a quorum.

“Our greatest selling point is, We are watching you,” said CLERB member Rev. Ricky Floyd. “We are like body cams for the police.”

Bryant said that she and city staff attorney Mary Grambergs, who is assigned to CLERB, met with Rallings and other police brass on Friday. Bryant said she felt it represented some level of progress to meet with police and hear the chief's perspective on CLERB. 

However, Bryant said that Rallings and the police are holding to the traditional cop line that no one but other officers are qualified to assess police conduct. Rallings said their inspectors go over every complaint "with a fine-toothed comb," and therefore are not going to accept any recommendations coming from CLERB.

"We already have sensitivity training," Bryant said Rallings responded to one recommendation that CLERB has made in the past. 

Some CLERB members opined that their presence and recommendations surely were being noticed by law enforcement, even if MPD never expressed public recognition of CLERB. 

In order to raise awareness of CLERB and engage the community, organizations such as MICAH (Memphis Interfaith Coalition for Action and Hope) could screen our documentary, Who Will Watch the Watchers? We offer the film as our gift to the community without cost to educational entities and community organizations. 

In spite of CLERB’s stumbles, citizen oversight in Memphis and every community in America remains the vehicle with the most potential to bridge the trust gap with law enforcement. It will be up to community outreach initiatives to bring along both citizens and law enforcement toward the goal of further legitimizing police authority. When law enforcement leaders turn the corner and acknowledge that citizen oversight gives them credibility and legitimacy, that will be a milestone.

In our Daily Kos stories since Nashville voted in its Community Oversight Board, we have offered some ways citizen boards could reach out to the community and the media. Community Oversight Now publicly screened Who Will Watch the Watchers? in October prior to the referendum in November. 

The National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE) will hold a one-day regional meeting and networking event in Nashville on Friday May 17. CLERB administrator Virginia Wilson will be a panelist for a session entitled, “A Regional Perspective on Oversight.”

Knoxville oversight board sponsoring workshops
Officials from Knoxville and Nashville also will participate in the NACOLE event as Tennessee now has three citizen oversight boards. Memphis was the first, launched in 1994 following a campaign led by former City Councilman Shep Wilbun and the police shooting of retired MLGW employee Jesse Bogard in Orange Mound. Knoxville’s Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC) meets quarterly and has been sponsoring community workshops on citizen safety awareness. 

Nashville’s Community Oversight Board is the newest and is developing its policies and procedures. Recently COB appointed attorney William Weeden as its first executive director.

Gary Moore operates Moore Media Strategies; founded Citizens Media Resource nonprofit; makes films on social justice issues, and covers First, Fourth and 14thAmendment-related issues for Daily Kos.