Memphis councilman wants to make police misconduct complaints more transparent to public

Investigations

Costs to get information on MPD can run into the thousands

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Inside the Raines Police precinct, a man was handcuffed for shooting an undercover cop in April 2015.

Daniel Jefferson later served time for the shooting, but that day, he was still a suspect. What happened inside the precinct led to an internal investigation.

Police records indicate several officers attacked the then-accused shooter, punching him multiple times as he cowered on the ground, then hitting him in the head with a plastic bowl as he cried out for help.

Three officers were suspended, including Armond Fairley. He denied the beating at first but records show he later apologized, saying emotions got the best of him.

The violations landed him on a special list prosecutors keep, a list of officers who are not credible, who should not be used to testify in court. Lt. Eric Kelly, also on that list, was also there that day but denied seeing any excessive force. Both Fairley and Kelly have since left MPD.

But Memphis City Councilman JB Smiley feels officers generally avoid public scrutiny because their records of misconduct are filed away, rarely seen by anyone outside the department.

“If allegations are made against me, it’s public. If allegations are made against a police officer it should be public as well,” Smiley said.

And even though the records are public, sometimes getting them can be very difficult.

“It’s a dated system. … We aren’t trying to hide anything.”

In January, WREG asked for records of excessive force and firearm discharge from 2015 to 2019.
We were told that would cost nearly $7,500 because there were 24,000 pages of documents and it would take 88 hours to retrieve and redact information.

On Feb. 6, we narrowed the timeline to just six months. Now almost six months later, we’re still waiting.

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute of Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, which aims to promote investigative journalism and the free flow of information vital to democracy.

He was also hit with a hefty bill of $6,000 when he requested public records on internal investigations into excessive force complaints over five years. He said MPD later worked with him, dropping the charge to $250.

Perrusquia said MPD gave him the summaries of complaints, but he’s limited on when he can look at them, and he can’t take any photos or scan and documents. He can only take notes.

“They were dealing with these complaints administratively and often times disciplining officers with suspensions and what not. But are they really holding them to the full accountability?” he said.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland agreed that the average citizen can’t afford to make requests like these, but said it’s only members of the media making these requests.

Strickland admitted the city has an outdated storage system, making it difficult to retrieve files. Based on various laws and rules, they also have to redact certain information.

The labor that goes into it is why the cost is so high.

“It’s a dated system,” Strickland said. “It wasn’t intentional. We weren’t trying to hide anything.”

“We shouldn’t be charging people for information … “

Smiley says he’s introducing a resolution to get all excessive force complaints and body camera violations on a portal the public can easily access.

“That is so vital to the safety and the general well-being of people,” Smiley said.

Strickland said the city is looking at updating the system and is looking at best practices in other cities including Chicago. But he says it will take time and money.

Police Director Michael Rallings said the department has taken steps to make more information available, posting online the internal annual reports between 2016 and 2019.

The reports give summaries of cases where officers fired their weapons and whether it was justified.
They also break down how many complaints they received, what they were for, and the disciplinary action.

“Whatever the challenges, we are fully committed to investigating, and figuring out what the best systems are out there,” Rallings said. “I was talking to the former chief in Chicago. I happened to call them and say, ‘How much did that site cost?’ He said, ‘Mike we started with $1 million in a group.'”

Smiley said those online records are “the administration’s attempt to slowly implement our suggestions.”

He wants to see more. But others aren’t supportive.

Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams says anyone can make a complaint.

“If you’re putting everything online then it’s just kind of like people automatically assume this guy is a troubled officer,” Williams said. “A lot of times complaints are made and they’re unfounded.”

But Smiley argues more transparency means more trust in the community.

“We don’t want to dress up the status quo and call it reform. We have to move forward now,” Smiley said.

Related: District Attorney says office will do better job tracking requests for review of law enforcement complaints

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