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. 


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