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Memorandum of Understanding

About that squabble between Toney Armstrong and Mike Williams ...

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When my wife and I got married two wonderful years ago, our rings signified we had our own "memorandum of understanding." One of the clearest terms of our agreement was that if I cheated with another woman, I could, or make that would, be subject to bodily harm, as opposed to the offending paramour I might take up with. I have readily and wholeheartedly accepted that particular stipulation.

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In a not so subtle way, it brings me to the recent public relations fiasco that transpired between Memphis Police Department (MPD) Director Toney Armstrong and Memphis Police Association (MPA) President Mike Williams. Within the space of 48 hours, both men argued, filed lawsuits against one another, and then "kissed and made up" at a hastily arranged news conference last week.

Their disagreement apparently stemmed from the ever-outspoken Williams taking issue with crime statistics indicating overall crime in the city was down. Williams asserted to a television reporter it wasn't true. An irate Armstrong then filed disciplinary action against Williams, based on verbal misconduct, which led to the union president and two other MPA leaders being assigned back to their regular police beats. Within hours of the decision, MPA threatened a lawsuit. Despite backing from the administration of Mayor A C Wharton, Armstrong would later rescind his decision and reinstate Williams and the others back to their statuses as full-time union representatives. Before the media hordes, both men spoke of the need to engage in a joint mission to stand together in the common cause of crime fighting.

Where do I begin to express the sense of lunacy, displayed on both sides, that all of this entailed? First, by reported accounts, Armstrong apparently laid a trap for Williams by calling him into a meeting in response to a reporter's baiting inquiries about Williams' reaction to the statistics. True, he told the reporter he didn't want any cameras to record the sensitive conversation. But why invite a reporter in at all? Could this not have been handled by inviting Williams to his office for a private conversation between two men who came up through the ranks together as colleagues? He had to have known it would make headlines. It's like the old analogy about a man taking in a snake as a pet, and when the snake bites him he expresses surprise when the answer is "well, you knew I was a snake, and this is what I do!" Reporters are supposed to report.

As for Williams, his mea culpa statement during the news conference — alleging the media sparked a "tit for tat that inflated his comments" — is in a word, laughable. Consider the source.

Since taking over the reins as MPA president in April 2011 from the ineffectual leadership of J. D. Sewell, Williams' self-determined "mission" has been to cast the Wharton administration as the "dark star" that's taking direct aim at destroying city employee unions. In his efforts, fostered under the guise of full union approval, he's pulled some outlandish and troubling displays of discontent. Not the least of which was last year's MPA-sponsored billboard campaign warning visitors to enter the "dangerous" city of Memphis "at their own risk." I don't think in the annals of any other city's history has such a foreboding message been as boldly plastered for public consumption.

In fact, that act alone might be construed as being in violation of the apparently flexible interpretation of the city's Memorandum of Understanding with the police and fire unions. In January 1981, four years after the police and firefighter strikes of 1977, the Labor Law Journal, in citing the violent acts that had taken place during the eight-day strike, said the unions "had attempted to alter the structure of government by coercive means." So, short of not making arrests, not issuing valid tickets, or not patrolling crime-riddled neighborhoods, could anything be more detrimental to the image of the city than telling people their lives are in danger if they come here?

Just as I have with my beloved, I know there is clarity to be had between MPD and MPA, based on one simple principle: Do the job you have sworn to do! The idea that a department and a union comprised of the same personnel can't understand they share the common ground of ensuring the safety of more than 600,000 people is ludicrous. Your memo of understanding should have that printed in the biggest and boldest of letters.

Yeah, and it should be billboard size.

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