Changing of the Guard

MPD Director Toney Armstrong
MPD Director Toney Armstrong
The Commercial Appeal reports that half of the members of MPD’s administrative staff have left, or will be leaving soon.

This follows the recently announced departure of Police Director Toney Armstrong.

While there’s no question the loss of so many seasoned officers who made their way up through the ranks will be a huge loss to the Department, it also gives newly inaugurated Mayor, Jim Strickland, an opportunity to remake the department to better serve the community.

To Protect and Serve

The Department faces many challenges in the coming years, including a crime rate that is higher than national averages for urban areas, continuing problems with public opinion, and an overall decline in the number of officers.

The department also suffers from internal problems that have been long ignored regarding policing strategies, something that was a major campaign issue in the fall, operating procedures that have serious flaws, and conduct issues that, while not untypical for a major metropolitan department, must be pursued in a more open and honest way.

It is my belief that these challenges are unlikely to be adequately addressed by an insider. The CA article cites concerns about losing institutional memory. While no one wants to have to relearn some of the more painful lessons of the past, there’s also no reason to believe that those lessons can’t be maintained with some of the leadership that remains assisting new leadership from outside.

Remaking the Department

One of the flaws that was exposed in the investigation into the officer involved shooting death of Darrius Stewart is the lack of consistent policy positions for officers in what would often be standard situations. These rules are written vaguely to give officers the latitude to make judgement calls. Unfortunately, that latitude can also be used to treat different people in similar situations very differently…which ultimately undermines the relationship between law enforcement and populations that have been wrongly targeted due to circumstances that may be beyond their control (race, the condition of their vehicle/residence, and the area in which they live).

Rules that detail when passengers involved in traffic stops are to be compelled to identify themselves need to be put in writing to ensure people’s privacy rights are respected, and that officers don’t accidentally create a situation where an arrest is thrown out due to mishandling the situation.

In addition, clear rules about when to call for backup need to be in place. If an officer has reasonable suspicion that there is additional illegal activity going on, calling for backup is appropriate because it both protects the officer and the other people involved by having another set of eyes on the scene.

Finally, additional rules about when force, either restraining force or deadly force, is to be used need to be implemented more fully. Is an unarmed suspect running from a crime scene a ‘deadly threat’? That standard should be in line with a 1985 US Supreme Court ruling which involved the Memphis Police Department.

The case, which happened in 1974, involved a MPD officer shooting and killing a man suspected of stealing a purse then fleeing. An officer on the scene shot the man in the head, killing him.

In the decision, the Supreme Court held that an officer could not use deadly force unless it was:

necessary to prevent the escape and the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others.

This is already the law of the land. Ensuring the Department is protecting itself, and its officers against unreasonable uses of deadly force is just as important as working as hard as possible to ensure the safety of the officers and the public.

Putting those things in writing to aid officers in their decision making on the scene would go a long way to avoiding issues that lead to the shooting death of Darrius Stewart.

An Active Partner

In addition to these changes, the new police administration should actively engage the Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) on any new policy adopted, and treat their relationship as a partnership to both inform the public of new policy, and provide oversight to the department when policy violations are reported.

Since long before the Darrius Stewart case, relations between law enforcement and some populations has been strained due to real and/or perceived wrongs committed by officers. Letting officers know that actions in violation of policy will be not only taken seriously, but that another set of eyes are watching, will help solidify these changes, and can lead to a net positive in the public’s view of police.

The end result here is not to tie the hands of officers, but to ensure consistency across the board, inoculating the officers and the department from lawsuits claiming unfair treatment.

Building Relationships

One of the challenges that police in Memphis face is little direct contact with the populations they’re serving, unless on a call. That means officers only see the people they’re serving when they’re at their worst, or in a bad situation, which negatively impacts their outlook on the community, and leads to more alienation.

Instituting a more traditional Community Policing Program would help both of those problems, and most likely lead to a real decrease in crime.

Community policing is a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies, which support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques, to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.

While walking patrols may not be feasible all the time in a place like Memphis, which has low population density, putting more of a focus on officers developing relationships with people in the community to create a more cooperative spirit between law enforcement and the public will minimize the alienation that is common in traditional patrols. It also builds relationships between the public and police that are durable, even when things go wrong (like a questionable police shooting).

Personal relationships go a long way to building stronger communities. Memphis not only has an interest in building those relationships to heal the fractures between the public and law enforcement, but to also use that ‘boots on the ground’ intelligence to identify other societal ills that may be occurring in communities (domestic violence, child abuse or neglect, unfit housing, wage theft, and other problems people who feel forgotten may not report because they don’t believe anything will be done about it).

This kind of partnership strengthens communities, and can help lift up people suffering from these kinds of problems that often go unseen until they spill over into the streets, or result in a 911 call.

As those problems get resolved, it also increases the efficiency of the citizenry (as they are now, assuming all goes right, in a better situation) which can lead to secondary gains for the community like greater economic independence and community renewal.

All of these things are important for a city like Memphis that has a high rate of working poor.

Conclusion

While the loss of decades of institutional memory may seem like a severe problem for the city…problems are really just opportunities ripe for the taking.

Positive changes are unlikely to come from within. Institutions have their own inertia and generally follow Newtonian Laws of Motion, meaning, they will most certainly maintain their current velocity and direction unless acted upon by an external force, and then, they’ll still resist the push to change.

The opportunity for Memphis and law enforcement in the City, is to identify the right kind of ‘external force’ that will move the department in the right direction, and make Memphis not only safer for its citizens, but also one that places a high degree of value in a cooperative relationship between the police and the citizenry.

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