Nov 26 2015

Cameras are only part of the solution

Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke

Chicago Officer Jason Van Dyke

16 shots.

Chicago police released the video this week, after a year of legal wrangling, of the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. Over a year since the incident, the officer is facing first degree murder charges.

According to police accounts, McDonald was a suspect in some auto burglaries in the area. The police also say he was armed with a knife.

But those same accounts say Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke fired sixteen bullets into his body but never gave any commands for him to halt, or put up his hands, or in any other way surrender. In fact, according to the officer whose car was recording the incident, said he was only on the scene for less than 30 seconds when he opened fire.

We’ll never know if McDonald is guilty of the crimes he was suspected of, because Officer Van Dyke acted as Judge, Jury and executioner, for a crime that would have been anything but a death sentence.

This isn’t the first time Van Dyke has been in trouble. According to CNN, he’s faced 20 lawsuits or complaints, which makes you question why he was on the streets to begin with.

Bringing it home

Over the past few years I’ve seen a lot of videos like this. I had to write story after story in my former role as a local TV news producer about these incidents.

And every one has made me more sure in my resolve that there is something broken in law enforcement in this country.

See, the ‘good guys’ aren’t supposed to shoot people in the back, or while stopped for a missing license plate, or choke them to death over bootlegged cigarettes. The ‘good guys’ are supposed to bring people to justice. Let them have their day in court, and spend time in jail if they’re guilty of the crimes they’re accused of.

But it seems like in the past few years, maybe more than other years, maybe I’m just paying more attention now, there are a lot of people getting killed by police for what would otherwise be petty crimes.

Is this a fluke that all these are happening, one seemingly after another?

Is it bizarre happenstance?

Or is it something that’s been going on, we’re just now getting around to noticing it?

I don’t have the answer to those questions. What I do know, both first hand, and through the stories of friends is that being at the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to big trouble for you, especially if you’re black. And if you happen to live in an area that’s a designated ‘wrong place’, you’re pretty much screwed.

And that’s why I’m a strong advocate for additional police oversight.

But lets not fool ourselves, cameras are only a part of that oversight.

Define ‘Threat’

What the shooting of Laquan McDonald shows is that the presence of cameras doesn’t mean a cop will think twice about using unnecessary deadly force for an assailant that is running away from them.

If this were a standoff, I think both the law, and standard operating procedure clearly dictates that the officer has a right to defend himself. But that’s not what happened. As the video clearly shows, McDonald was running away from the police. I’m not saying that’s legal, but it doesn’t seem to rise to any reasonable standard of using deadly force. That’s why this officer is facing murder charges.

But you also have to ask, “Why did this officer think using his service weapon was the best/only response?” And to get that answer, you have to look into both the written policy of the department, and the culture of the department. Because policy is no better than the paper its written on if there’s an understanding about when it will and won’t be followed. And if this officer believed that he could act in this way, without facing consequences, then the charges against him are as much an indictment of the upper echelon of the Chicago Police Department… a department whose initial account of what happened is very different from what is shown in the video, and the Cook County Prosecutor, who took a year to announce the indictment the officer, as it is an indictment of the individual cop.

Systematic Injustice?

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullouch

St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCullouch

In order to understand the difficult challenge that a prosecutor is under when the potential of indicting an officer presents itself, you have to look at the symbiotic relationship they have with police…as well as the personal relationships that they’re required to maintain to keep putting away bad guys.

Cops are the boots on the ground who deliver the goods to prosecutors: from the uniformed patrol who are the first responders, to the investigators who work to crack the case. Cops do the prosecutors dirty work, deliver them the case, and the prosecutor then has to be ready to take that information and put it before a jury.

Truth be told, both prosecutors and top brass with police forces around the country are political jobs, and they rely on the cops at the ground level to make them look good so they can keep their jobs.

So when no cops are found to have abused their authority after 20 police shootings in 5 years , or 6 cops beat the hell out of two guys and aren ‘t charged no one should be surprised.

One hand relies on the other to stay alive. As a result, those two hands tend to be forgiving of sins against outsiders.

So when we hear a grand jury may be able to indict a ham sandwich, but not a cop in Memphis, you have to seriously question the prosecutors commitment to pursuing justice for all.

Because we’ve seen prosecutors use grand juries for political and patronage purposes before just 200 miles to the north.

The tactic was a shrewd maneuver, legal experts say, in which McCulloch both deflected responsibility for his own failure to charge Wilson and — deliberately or not — created conditions in which the grand jury would not be likely to charge him either.

Which is why its important that the Grand jury transcripts in the Darrius Stewart case be reviewed, and if the prosecutor employed a similar tactic, it be released to the public.

Because if the Shelby County DA’s office isn’t going to handle an indictment proceeding for a cop the same way they would handle any other like charge, then how can anyone believe that the interests of impartial justice are being served?

Tarnished Brass

I like Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve never met the man. But I believe he’s trying to run a clean shop, despite the slew of current and former officers that have been indicted over the past few years.

But when you read an investigation about something known as Choir practice you have to question not only the leadership that has risen through the ranks, but also the internal culture that brought that leadership to the top.

And while Armstrong may have kept a low profile early in his career its not crazy to question his ability, as an insider, to challenge a culture he’s been a part of since he was on patrol.

Because it seems that a greater proportion of cops have been accused to all kinds of crimes (cop crimes per thousand on the force), than the general public in the past couple of years (I dare a media outlet to run the numbers). And that’s worrisome.

Now, you could argue that the fact that so many cases have come up shows that the current administration is fighting back against internal demons, and you might be right about that. Or it could be that these were the easy cases, that were perpetrated by dumb people, and it was just too hard not to prosecute them.

In any case, with one case after another coming up this year alone, you have to wonder what else is going on, and, more importantly, what, if anything is being done about it.

True Justice

Video of the Rodney King beating, 1991

Video of the Rodney King beating, 1991

In order for police and prosecutors to regain the faith and trust of the public, they have to stop using their reliance on each other as a wedge that creates two kinds of justice…inside justice and outside justice. Because that’s what it appears to be.

We also have to recognize that this isn’t anything new. This kind of separate and unequal justice has been going on in America for a long time. Anyone remember Rodney King? The only reason any cops were indicted in that case is because someone started videotaping from a nearby apartment. It was 1991, and video cameras weren’t as pervasive as they are today.

Now, just about every phone out there has some kind of camera. And that means, cases like the ones we’ve been hearing so much about over the past couple of years, are going to come to light more than ever before. Which should tell cops who are intent on overstepping their authority that they can’t do that anymore. That hasn’t happened.

FBI Director James Comey

FBI Director James Comey

So while law enforcement leaders, from the head of the FBI on down, may cite the “Ferguson Effect”… a spike in violent crime resulting from law enforcement withdrawing due to increased oversight, even though he admits he doesn’t have any solid evidence of it being a ‘thing’, the real ‘Ferguson Effect’, if there is one, is that the public is using the technology that is literally in their hands, to protect themselves from cops who would do wrong.

And that’s exactly the kind of oversight that is necessary to provide a check against civil rights abuses that have always been there, but are just now coming into the light.

But as we’ve seen in case after case, just capturing something on video isn’t enough to bring justice. That’s why independent prosecutors who have a transparency mandate should bring these cases to the Grand Jury, not state cops like the TBI, who have promised transparency, but so far, haven’t delivered.

That’s also why independent citizen led groups, like the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board should be there to provide oversight to the internal affairs process to ensure the internal enforcement of standard operating procedures and good policing techniques are adhered to, rather than relying on assurances from police administrators.

Because no one who’s ever had a bad encounter with a cop, and plenty of people who haven’t, believe in those assurances anymore.

Most importantly, the good cops who are out there…and there are hundreds of them in Memphis alone, should demand this kind of transparency, so they can remove the tarnish from their badges that cops who would exceed their authority have brought on them.

The police work for us, the citizens of Memphis. So do prosecutors. And while its understandable that neither group would want to part with the one hand washes the other relationship they’ve had over the years, the events highlighted in the media, both here and around the country, demand that they do.

That means more transparency in the workings of both organizations, and more accountability when things go wrong.

Exactly how it should have been in the first place.

Oct 09 2015

Time for a change

Posted by Steve Ross in elections

Richard Holden

Richard Holden

Another election, another election night with glitches.

At this point, we don’t really know what caused the problems that marred election night 2015 in Memphis, but what we do know is that the Election Commission isn’t very good at doing elections.

In nearly every election since 2012 there has been some problem. And while some, but not most, of those problems might have been excusable, the response from the Administrator of Elections, Richard Holden, has been nothing short of disdain and ‘get off my lawn’ isms.

An audit in 2012 conducted by the State of Tennessee into the wrong ballots fiasco faulted Holden’s leadership.

The Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission gave the Election Commission a vote of no confidence after problems.

Heck, even Republican Commissioner Wyatt Bunker said enough is enough.

But this isn’t about politics, its about competence. That’s what it was about in the 2012 election when thousands of people got the wrong ballot.

And here we are again, this election, with people getting wrong ballots!

Its not that the job is easy, because it isn’t. But now 5 years into his tenure, Mr. Holden has had plenty of time to get the problems fixed, and not only have they not been fixed, there seems to be no timeline or urgency to fix them.

Taken at 12am from the Shelby County Election Commission results site

Taken at 12am from the Shelby County Election Commission results site

Election Commissioners have tried to vote him out, failing on a party line vote.

Maybe this time it will be different, maybe it won’t.

But if the Commissioners themselves won’t take the mantle that’s been given them by members of the Shelby County Delegation to the Tennessee General Assembly, then one has no other option but to assume they’re just as much a part of the problem as Holden.

We’ll see what they do at the next meeting later this month (it wasn’t posted as of the writing of this post).

Oct 08 2015

Congratulations Jim

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections

Memphis Mayor Elect Jim Strickland

Memphis Mayor Elect Jim Strickland

I wasn’t able to make it out to the festivities tonight, but I wanted to take a moment to congratulate my friend Jim Strickland on his win tonight in the Memphis Mayoral contest.

This is the first election I’ve had to sit out since the 2007 City election. Its been kinda weird from the sidelines.

All that said, I know Jim will do his best for Memphis, and even though we’ve disagreed on the finer details of policy over the years, he’s a good man who really wants Memphis to shine.

I’d also like to thank Mayor Wharton for his service to Memphis and Shelby County over the years. He has a distinguished career as a public defender, County and City Mayor, among other titles. I wish him the best in all his future endeavors.

As for the other races, at this point we’re still waiting for results. I’ve got several friends running in several contests. Hopefully we’ll know more in the morning.

There are some other things that need to be talked about, including the glitch that slowed results, the way the campaign was conducted and the final results, and concerns about racial representation in the City’s top job.

All of these topics deserve some time, and I’ll get started on the easiest one, the glitches, tomorrow.

Sep 19 2015

Memphis City Elections – Early Voting Locations

Posted by Steve Ross in Uncategorized

Early Voting locations for the 2015 Memphis City Election.
Locations are open September 18th – October 3rd.
10am-7pm M-F
10am-4pm Sat

For more information go to: Shelby County Election Commission

Jul 28 2015

Profiles in Cowardice

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections, Memphis, shenanigans

Backing off his support of the CLERB isn’t the first time the Mayor lost his backbone at the last second

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton

Memphis Mayor AC Wharton

Monday, the Memphis City Council met with key stakeholders to finalize a draft ordinance that would give additional oversight of the Memphis Police Department.

The Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board, an entity that has existed in name only for years, would be given additional powers to investigate complaints brought forward against the Police department. One of those powers would be the ability to compel testimony, and the handing over of documents from the Police department.

Until last night, it seemed everyone was on board…the majority of the City Council had pushed through two readings, and the Mayor had signaled he supported the draft that included the above changes. Even the super secret 14th member of the City Council, Alan Wade, had been placated it seemed.

But for reasons not immediately apparent, the Mayor withdrew his support of the ordinance at the 11th hour, and wasn’t even man enough to deliver the news himself.

Considering recent events, many observers wondered why the Mayor would do this? But if you’ve been paying attention, this has been this administration’s Modus Operandi from the very beginning.

Shifting Sands

Wharton is no stranger to randomly, and seemingly without warning, changing his positions.

In 2010, the Mayor withdrew his support for a non-discrimination ordinance that he previously supported. The ordinance was eventually withdrawn.

He did it again in 2012, citing mysteriously vague objections, and trotting out Attorneys Alan Wade and Herman Morris to do his dirty work.

He’s done the same thing to the folks seeking to keep a section of Overton Park from being a defacto parking lot for the zoo. The mayor, at first seemed to support the idea, then both backed off at the last second, and changed his ‘opinion’

In fact, if you look for any issue you’ve seen the Mayor speak on over the past 6 years of his tenure, you will find articles and appearances in which he regularly supports both sides of the issue, sometimes at the same time, and in the process, preserves his political capital for the masses who generally aren’t paying attention to such things.

It is both sad testimony that the local media has largely allowed him to do this, and that he thinks we’re too dumb to notice.


The City has had a Civilian Review Board ordinance on the books since 1994. The ordinance, in its current form, has no teeth. As a result, the board went dormant until a series of actions, both locally and nationally, brought the idea back into the spotlight.

Now, in light of a the local shooting of an unarmed black teen… another in a string of nationally spotlighted shootings of unarmed black men, it would seem like the perfect time to institute some independent oversight of the police…not to go on a witch hunt, but to both provide the public with assurance that the investigations into possible malfeasance by officers are above board, and to root out those few officers who don’t like playing by the rules.

People who don’t like civilian oversight of anything have called supporters of the CLERB “anti-cop”, but that is a gross mischaracterization. If anything, the CLERB would help restore faith in the police by bringing the findings of investigations out into the open where regular folks can see what’s going on.

Many other cities have Review Boards…some with more powers than others. Knoxville has a review board that has many of the powers sought by advocates for the Memphis ordinance. In fact, restoring the relationship between the public and police is job #1 listed in the Knoxville ordinance.

It doesn’t seem like a crazy request or an unreachable. But to the Mayor, in an election year, it scared him so bad, he couldn’t even come down and deliver the news of his flip floppery himself.

Civilian Oversight is the Essence of Our Republic

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.” –Thomas Jefferson

Every two to four years we have elections for various and sundry offices in this country. In Memphis, those elections seem to be every 90 days or so, but they still happen.

Its natural for people in power to try to put the best face forward, to obfuscate somewhat, to use misdirection to confuse people.

But there’s nothing confusing about what Mayor Wharton’s administration did yesterday: It purposefully withdrew support for political purposes. Mayor Wharton figures the politics of not supporting this ordinance, and possibly upsetting some police officers, is more important than the public having a voice in the workings of an agency of their government that, under the long veil of secrecy, has continued to lose the faith of the citizenry.


You can be a strong supporter of the Mayor and still support the CLERB ordinance.

You can be a strong supporter of local law enforcement and support the CLERB. In fact, regular cops who serve the public well on a regular basis have nothing more to worry about from the CLERB than they do from the current Internal Affairs process.

You can’t, however, proclaim to be a strong supporter of transparency and at the same time, oppose giving powers to a board that would seek to bring more transparency to an unnecessarily veiled process.

In fact, it is one of the very ideas the Mayor solicited from former County Commissioner, Mike Carpenter when he asked him to review the city’s transparency process.

Its high time the Mayor stood by that 2009 Executive Order and let the sunshine in on local government.

One way to do that, is to support all the changes the new CLERB ordinance proposes.

Doing anything else, means the Mayor has just added to his growing list of flip-flopery on the important issues of the day.