Profiles in Cowardice

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 The ordinance was eventually withdrawn.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.

Why CLERB

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.

Conclusion

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.

18 Replies to “Profiles in Cowardice”

  1. Although generally an effective Mayor, Wharton has once again outraged many citizens by withdrawing support for a policy at the last moment. Perhaps we would be better served if the Mayor could carefully the consequences of endorsing a position before he does so. Nothing is quite so irritating as losing a major endorsement at the 11th hour.

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