MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis leaders promise to beef up a board that keeps the police from policing themselves, but critics wonder if the change is meaningful.
The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, or CLERB, is one topic that took priority during meetings with religious leaders and community activists following recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations.
City leaders say the city has identified areas where it can improve.
“We are committed to moving forward. We are committed to CLERB,” Police Director Michael Rallings said.
But some people who’ve dealt with the board or served on it said they came away feeling frustrated.
“The board is pretty much neutered,” said former CLERB volunteer board member John Marek.
CLERB, an independent agency with the authority to investigate allegations of police misconduct, was created in Memphis more than two decades ago.
It’s an option people have if they don’t like the outcome of the department’s internal investigation.
Members are appointed by the mayor and the council signs off.
On Feb. 8, 2016, Reginald Johnson says, police barged into his Frayser house and got upset with him after he called them. He’d found a man at his door, bleeding and pleading for help.
“I had seen blood on his shirt. He told me to call the police department,” Johnson said.
To this day, Johnson says he’s not sure what happened.
“They began to just beat me and beat me, and pepper sprayed me,” he said. “They didn’t give me a reason, but I justified it myself. I thought maybe they thought I was the one who had done it.”
According to police records, the officers claim Johnson told the victim to not cooperate. They claim they were trying to subdue Johnson when he tried to assault them.
With no cameras inside the house, it became their word against his. Johnson said he wanted an independent person to look at it.
In 2015, CLERB was overhauled. The board was assigned three staff members including an investigator, and there were new requirements things like posting the police director’s responses on a website.
Johnson took his case to the newly revamped board, thinking he had a shot.
And he did — CLERB unanimously ruled in his favor, asking MPD Director Michael Rallings to reprimand the officers and provide more training.
Instead, Rallings sent back a letter saying he disagreed with the board, stating “the incident was a result of Johnson’s actions,” that he “interfered with the investigation” and went on to say the officers already get the training they requested.
It was similar to the response Rallings gave to the other cases the board asked him to review between 2017 and 2019.
Rallings says he carefully looks at every case CLERB sends him.
“I’m going to side with the facts,” Rallings said. “I’m charged by law. View the facts and present the facts.”
Rallings’ letters are now posted online. That’s part of that 2015 overhaul was only recently put into place.
“I always say that everyone should see the letters,” Rallings said.
Strickland, who voted for CLERB’s overhaul when he sat on the council, said he and community leaders sat down after the protests and identified specific items both groups agreed to improve.
Those include more communication, more money for training for board members and the staff, opening up the nomination process to the entire city, and also assigning the board another part-time staffer.
But Marek, the former CLERB member, says more must be done. “It was very frustrating volunteer work,” he said.
Current members, like CLERB interim president Ricky Floyd, agree.
“Not only do we not have subpoena power, we don’t even have power we thought we had,” Floyd said.
He says the board has no binding power, and a recent state law prevents the board from subpoenaing an officer. They can only request the city council do that.
Floyd said the only person council has ever subpoenaed in a matter was former nightclub owner and perennial mayoral candidate Prince Mongo.
“As far as I can tell the CLERB board has only asked City Council one time to use their subpoena power,” Strickland said. “I would’ve assumed that they would have gone back and asked for that many times, for that subpoena power.”
Even so, the mayor says he plans on going to Nashville to ask lawmakers to reconsider.
For Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams, the issue is that, even if you subpoena an officer they can still plead the Fifth — in other words, not speak to avoid incriminating themselves.
“Then you’re gonna say, well they’ve got something to hide. No. Under the constitution they don’t have to say anything,” Williams said. “It just puts the police officers in a situation where as it almost gives the perception that they are guilty. That’s one reason I don’t like it.”
Floyd disagrees, saying CLERB is supposed to be “a voice to the voiceless.”
“CLERB is for someone like a single mother in Frayser whose 16-year-old son got beat up or roughed up, and who can she go to, to have someone at least hear her and make sure that everything was done by protocol,” Floyd said.
He’s hopeful the value of CLERB is being recognized.
“I see progression in Rallings,” Floyd said. “And him embracing working with us and even coming to us and explaining and listening to us.”
CLERB’s budget this year is $233,000 dollars. Nashville allocated $1.5 million to its oversight board.
WREG asked Strickland about the difference in funds. He said Nashville also increased property taxes by more than 30%.
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