Politics » Politics Feature

Commissioners Clash on Sheriff’s Department Budget


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The debate over reconfiguring law enforcement agencies in the wake of George Floyd's death under a policeman's knee in Minneapolis is generating sparks of genuine controversy in local government and among local officials.

There are no cries — yet — to "defund the police," in the words of a slogan gathering steam nationally, but there is ample talk of reallocating public dollars from policing to activities bolstering the kind of struggling communities from which the George Floyds of the world derive.

On Monday, one idea of that sort entered — and momentarily raised the temperature — of the umpteenth recent meeting, a virtual Zoom affair, of the Shelby County Commission in order to reach agreement on a county budget for fiscal 2020-21.

Disputants Billingsley and Sawyer
  • Disputants Billingsley and Sawyer

This was a proposal from Democratic Commissioner Tami Sawyer — a scaled-down version of a previous suggestion on her part — to cut five percent of the Shelby County Sheriff Department's budget and reallocate the money in equal amounts to the county Department of Community Services and the county contingency fund for youth education and services. The money in question translated to just under $9 million.

Steve Leech, CAO of the sheriff's department, was quick to call that plan damaging to the department, and in the ensuing brisk debate on the proposal among commissioners, the commission's GOP chairman, Mark Billingsley, objected to what he regarded as "punishment" of the sheriff's department.

His use of the term would seem to have inflamed Sawyer, and, in the course of further disagreement between the two about the excesses of local law enforcement, she took Billingsley to task for "telling me I don't know what I'm talking about" and recounted a moment during the previous week's demonstrations when, wearing her commissioner's jacket, she was allegedly harassed by a deputy who told her to "get the f*** out of my face."

Billingsley attempted to object to Sawyer's use of the "f-word," causing a further escalation of her anger, and she berated him, using such terms as "How dare you!" She would later post items relating to the incident on her Facebook page, referring to Billingsley as "a white man" and herself as "the ONLY Black woman commissioner in a county that's 65 percent black" and remonstrating, "understand, the next time you want to spout some black facts you read off your phone, Mark Billingsley, I will remind you that I live it, every day."

Later, Monday, as he prepared to recess the meeting for a week, Billingsley told the commission, "Hopefully, I'm much more than a white man. This was hurtful to me, my kids, and my wife. To be attacked on Facebook by my own colleague is inappropriate. If change is to be, you need more Mark Billingsleys."

Potentially obscured by the personal confrontation was the fact that Sawyer's proposal for reallocation of sheriff's department money was backed by four colleagues besides herself — fellow Democrats Michael Whaley, Reginald Milton, Mickell Lowery, and Van Turner. The final vote was five ayes, five nos, and three abstentions — auguring a possible return to the idea at a later meeting.

A similarly stalemated vote, this one on a resolution to accept a county health insurance package, left the commission undecided on rival proposals from Cigna, backed by Methodist Hospital, and Blue Cross-Blue Shield, affiliated with Baptist Hospital.

In the course of its lengthy Monday session — to be followed up by yet another potential marathon meeting on the budget next Monday — commissioners agreed on a series of reductions lowering the county's threatened deficit from $11.6 million to $5,745,000.

Up to this point the commissioners have treated as sacrosanct the concept of maintaining an unused fund balance equivalent to 20 percent of the budget outlays themselves (as against a lesser percentage maintained by the city of Memphis vis-à-vis its fund balance), but they agreed to a suggestion from Turner to be open-minded about revising that formula, if necessary to balance the budget.

• Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen had his weekly online chat with reporters Monday and discussed with them the Justice in Policing Act, which he has co-sponsored and which incorporates several prior pieces of legislation sponsored by him — the National Statistics on Deadly Force Transparency Act (H.R. 119), the Police CAMERA Act (H.R. 12)), and the Police Training and Independent Review Act (H.R. 125).

The congressman, a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee and chairman of the subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties, said he would be returning to Washington to participate in Wednesday’s oversight hearing on Policing Practices and Law Enforcement Accountability.

Of the hearing, Cohen said, “I feel it is important to be present in Washington to question witnesses and get a deeper sense of how to address issues of police accountability after weeks of protest nationwide, as I have been a leader on these issues throughout my career. I chair a Judiciary Subcommittee reviewing these matters and it’s clear the time is now for enacting reforms…..” •

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