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Addressing Police

Allegations of unfair hiring practices kill council's police residency proposal.



A few weeks ago, city councilman Shea Flinn told his colleagues they could choose their safety or their pride.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they chose pride.

Last week, the City Council voted 7-6 along racial lines to strike down a proposal that would have allowed Memphis police officers to live 20 miles outside the Shelby County line. Current standards mandate that police hires live in Memphis or Shelby County.

The vote has created a firestorm of controversy and a swarm of angry letters to The Commercial Appeal. One letter writer said he hoped the council members who opposed the measure would soon become victims of crime. (Speaking of pride and the seven deadly sins, there's wrath for you.)

Since the swearing-in of nine new City Council members last January, most of the council has been committed to instating a full complement of officers to the Memphis Police Department (MPD), roughly 200 more officers than the department has right now.

But the sticking point of the residency proposal — once taxes and civic pride — has turned to whether the police department really needs more applicants or whether it is needlessly turning away African Americans who are applying for jobs.

"We don't have a lack of folk applying," said council member Barbara Swearengen Ware. "We have folk who are being disqualified systematically."

According to MPD's website, 996 of its officers are white and more than 1,100 of them are black, a ratio that resembles the overall racial makeup of the city.

But of the 2,644 African Americans who have applied to the police department over the past two years, only 332 were hired. That means that roughly 12.6 percent of African-American applicants were hired, compared to 21.6 percent (222 of 1,024) of their white counterparts.

"I've had a number of families contact me," council member Wanda Halbert said in an executive committee meeting last week prior to the full council session. "Their boys have been wrongfully arrested; the tickets dismissed; and then that's used against them in police hiring."

Council chair Myron Lowery said all council members had received similar correspondence, but council member Bill Boyd said that wasn't the case.

"I have not received one piece of mail, one e-mail, or one telephone call about anything being unfair," Boyd said.

Council member Harold Collins also asked that the department's recent recruitment efforts — including a catchy ad campaign with slogans such as "Write Your Own Ticket" and "Be Your Finest" — be given a chance to work before opening recruitment to people living outside Shelby County.

"People leave [Memphis] because of the crime and that's fine, but they go to other cities and they want our jobs," Collins said. "How do we balance that on the backs of the rest of the citizens who decided to stay here and make it work?"

I'm not sure what difference 200 new officers will make. In an ideal world, I would want Memphis police officers to live within the city of Memphis. I think police officers should have a stake in the area they protect. But we're not living in an ideal world.

In the last few years, the police department has relaxed its educational requirement to include no college coursework (from at least two years of college or military service).

Given the choice, I think I'd rather officers be a little more intelligent even if it means they're a little less local.

"Twenty-five percent [of new hires who live in Shelby County] said they would not have accepted jobs if there was a residency requirement," Blair Taylor, president of Memphis Tomorrow and a member of the public/private police hiring task force, told the council. "The issue of residency is one you can move the needle on rapidly if you decide your priority is to expand the number of police officers."

If we don't want officers to live outside Memphis, then we need to ask ourselves how low we're prepared to drop our standards. Take, for instance, officers' driving habits. In defending the department's hiring practices to the council, police director Larry Godwin said he had relaxed some of his predecessors' requirements.

"It used to be that if an applicant had three traffic citations in a 12-month period, they were disqualified," he said. "I raised it to four traffic citations. ... As soon as one [citation] falls off, they're back in the picture."

I don't know how many traffic tickets the average Memphian gets a year — I don't know anyone who has gotten four citations in one year — but it seems like operating a motor vehicle safely is a key part of a patrol officer's job.

"Out of the last set of applicants, about 56 or 57, about 25 of them need waivers or approval from me," Godwin said. "In my four years, I've given 11 [waivers], and now I've got 25 of them sitting on my desk. I need to look at them carefully and say, 'Do I want to put a gun and a badge on this individual?'"

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