Right around the same time last week that Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich was announcing that a Memphis Police officer would not be criminally charged for shooting an unarmed black man, the Memphis City Council was taking up a vote on how much power a civilian board would have to investigate complaints of police misconduct.
While Connor Schilling, the officer who shot Darrius Stewart, got off without state charges, the council voted in favor of giving the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) more teeth to investigate complaints.
CLERB, which has been in place since 1994 but inactive since 2011, investigates complaints of force, verbal abuse, harassment, arrest, illegal search or entry, intimidation, improper firearm use, or other issues with police.
Perhaps the biggest change for CLERB came in giving the board indirect subpoena power. The board was previously unable to require that police officers involved in a case appear before the board. They also could not require the city to hand over documents pertaining to a case.
But the up-to-date CLERB ordinance gives the board the ability to subpoena officers and documents through a Memphis City Council liaison. Originally, when citizen group Memphis United began proposing the city give CLERB more power, they'd asked for the council to give the board the ability to directly subpoena officers and documents without going through a liaison. But council attorney Allan Wade said such a change would require a citywide referendum.
"What we have instead is the next best thing," said Paul Garner, organizer for Memphis United. "The council will subpoena requested documents and records on behalf of the review board. If that's the closest thing we can get without a referendum, we'll take that over them not being able to issue subpoenas."
The Rev. Ralph White of Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church has served as the chair of CLERB since before it became inactive in 2011, and he said the subpoena power makes CLERB's job much easier.
"[Before], we were not able to have contact or dialogue with the police officers who had been charged with offenses, so it was a little difficult for us to adequately represent those complaints," White said.
The CLERB ordinance also allows for the hiring of an investigator and an administrator to oversee investigations into alleged police misconduct. Since CLERB is an all-volunteer board, its previous incarnation was unable to put enough time into investigations.
"The board members often have other responsibilities beyond the board, so having a dedicated staff is critical," Garner said.
CLERB works somewhat like an appeals board, White said. First, a complainant must file a report with the Memphis Police Department's Internal Affairs division. Internal Affairs has 45 days to complete the their investigation, another new addition to the CLERB ordinance. Previously, Internal Affairs cases could take much longer to complete.
"If the complainant isn't satisfied [with Internal Affairs], they can come to us. We can take the information they have and allow our investigator to go through and make his or her decision and compare that to what's already out there," White said.
Once CLERB reaches a conclusion, the board can make a recommendation for a disciplinary action to the police director, but it's up to the director whether or not the action will be enforced.
The CLERB ordinance passed in council with a 9-2 vote, with only councilmen Reid Hedgepeth and Kemp Conrad voting against it. Conrad said he didn't have a problem with the idea of CLERB, but he felt that the group pushing for the changes — Memphis United — was anti-police. Memphis United has organized peaceful protests against police violence and supports the Black Lives Matter movement.
"I and others were concerned that the CLERB board allowed these openly anti-police people to hijack the whole communications process," Conrad said. "What if those people have influence or end up on the [CLERB] board?"
But White said it's never been the goal of CLERB to "bash police officers." He said, in some cases where the board finds proof of police misconduct, they'll suggest more training or a desk position over termination.
"The majority of the time, when we have investigated cases [on the old board], the citizens were found at fault. Often, things happen because citizens were ignorant of the law," White said. "We're going to educate citizens on what their rights are and what rights they do not have.
"Many times, when [police] are doing their jobs, they don't know if a traffic stop will be their last action on this earth. We're not just there to get the police. Most police are men and women who love our community, and some of them might be bad apples, just like you've got in every occupation."