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Memphis United Wants Better Board to Police the Police

Group calls for city to give more power to Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board.



The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), the independent board that investigates complaints about police officers, was reinstated last June after years of being inactive. But an audit of the board by the Memphis United Coalition found that the board hasn't reviewed a single case since then.

Part of the reason for the inactivity of the board is its lack of power, according to CLERB Chairman Rev. Ralph White. Now Memphis United has drawn up a list of demands for how CLERB should be operated and what sort of power it should have.

The group addressed those demands in the public comment period of last week's Memphis City Council meeting, and they plan to work with council members soon to draft a full ordinance increasing CLERB's power.

"An audit revealed several systemic flaws that limited the ability of the board to function efficiently," said Paul Garner of Memphis United. "That includes CLERB not having the power to subpoena records or the power to require cooperation of witnesses from the Memphis Police Department."

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When a civilian has a complaint about excessive use of force by a police officer, illegal search, police harassment, poor customer service by police, property damage by police, or police following incorrect procedures, they're supposed to first file a complaint with the Memphis Police Department's (MPD) Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB). If they're unhappy with the bureau's findings, they can then appeal their complaint to CLERB.

Memphis United is suggesting that the Memphis City Council give CLERB subpoena power to gain access to police witnesses and documents, the ability to make policy recommendations to the MPD, the ability to investigate complaints concurrently with the IAB, and enough funding to conduct independent investigations into complaints of police misconduct.

"We had a private investigator at one time, and they cut that from the budget," said White, who served on the last incarnation of the board as well.

CLERB was established in 1994 after 68-year-old Jesse Bogand was shot by police in Orange Mound. At the time, the board was intended to investigate, hear cases, and recommend action on findings of police misconduct. But since police officers were not required to cooperate and because the board didn't have the power to subpoena documents, CLERB lacked teeth.

The board was eventually dismantled, but it was reinstated in 2014 after a few volunteers at the Manna House, a gathering place for the city's homeless, attempted to appeal a complaint to CLERB, only to find the board had been inactive for years. The Memphis City Council voted to appoint new members to the board in June 2014, and they also voted to allow Memphis United to host public forums to gain input on how to improve the board.

White said the new board hasn't heard cases yet because they simply don't have much power. They're hoping the council adopts the suggestions of Memphis United.

"We want to make sure we put some of those suggestions in place before we start hearing cases," White said. "Right now, we simply don't have enough power on the board to get police officers to come to hearings. We do need a bit more power and authority."

White said, although the board wants more power, they also want the MPD to know that they're not in place to oppose the lawful work of the department.

"We want to make sure they understand that we're not working against them," White said. "We just want to make sure we have a functional police department that is working for the betterment of the people."

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