Opinion » Editorial

Talking the Talk

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One of the more dismaying developments of the city's recent history has been the reintroduction of race as a factor in determination of policy. Nowhere has this issue been more pronounced than in the on-again/off-again debate on the City Council regarding residency requirements for new Memphis police hires.

There seems to be little doubt, among blacks and whites, that crime is now, and is likely to remain, the chief obstacle to progress in Memphis and Shelby County, significantly affecting the prospects for industrial recruitment for a job-poor economy. County mayor A C Wharton has been eloquent on the point, most recently in an address to the downtown Kiwanis Club last week in which he noted that the condition of public safety inside the Memphis city limits directly affects the quality of life in Shelby County at large and, for that matter, that of the surrounding Mid-South area.

Though Wharton did not directly touch on the issue of police recuitment, his Memphis mayoral counterpart, Willie Herenton, has on numerous occasions made the same point about the centrifugal effect of crime on the Greater Memphis living space. Indeed, the point has been key to Herenton's consistent advocacy of relaxing police residency requirements. Since Memphis and its surrounding area are part of a nexus, and since passage back-and-forth from the city to its suburbs is the daily reality of an increasing proportion of citizens, it should be possible to draw on that surrounding area in recruiting police officers.

Ultimately, arguments of that sort proved compelling to a majority on the City Council, which had long been stalemated along racial lines but finally passed a compromise resolution permitting temporary recruitment from within a 20-mile circumference outside the county and imposed a $1,400 fee on these new suburban hires.

The impasse was broken when two black council members, Harold Collins and Janis Fullilove, broke ranks and made common cause with their white colleagues and the mayor.

The vote was close, however, and there remained considerable opposition to the measure — within the inner city, in particular. Litigation against the new policy was not only inevitable but a legitimate part of vetting the process.

It is dismaying, however, that Jay Bailey, attorney for the litigants, persists in focusing attention on race as the central issue at stake, as he did again Tuesday following a brief Chancery Court hearing on the ongoing suit. The council's resolution, he suggested in language unrelated to the formal wording of the suit, was but a screen for the hiring of more white police officers — a Trojan Horse, as it were.

Ironically, Bailey is just now one of two candidates for chairman of the Shelby County Democratic Party — a position that, surely, calls for a color-blind attitude toward public affairs. Nothing in the case at hand requires the imposition of a color line, and we suggest that Bailey counsel with himself on the matter and amend a careless public statement that is bound to do more harm than good — to his own cause as well as that of the community at large.

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