Nearly 20 years ago it was an idea the Memphis City council thought had merit. They voted to establish and appoint a citizens review board as an oversight group to investigate allegations of Memphis Police misconduct.
But, with no money and no real power the review board drifted off into obscurity. A new effort, though, is afoot to revive the board.
MORE: Group calls for civilian oversight of Memphis law enforcement
Even the best of intentions can end up being the worst of realities. Yet, a coalition of citizens groups thinks with the right mechanism and people in place an old idea can be made into a strong vehicle for community involvement.
Riddle me this? Which Memphis city government appointed entity is, by appearance, but not steeped in reality, still limping along 18 years after its creation? Here's a clue.
"The website, the phone number for the hours of operation, are still on the city of Memphis' website, and members of the council are still being appointed to be liaisons to a board that no longer exists," said Brad Watkins, Director of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center
Do you need another identifying clue? Let's just say in a city where the words "government" and "waste" have become synonymous, the plight of the once bally-hooed Citizen Law Enforcement Review Board, created to be a watchdog group over Memphis Police Department misconduct, ranks among the most non-productive organizations in the city's history.
So, why does another citizens' group now think it's worth a shot to resurrect what's been a "white elephant" in terms of accomplishing it's original mission?
"While we have a great many good and honest police officers in the city of Memphis, what we have is not a problem of 'bad apples,' but a systemic problem of a lack of civilian accountability to law enforcement," Watkins said.
"I don't want to create something that creates a bigger problem," said Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong. "I think our disciplinary processes work now. I think we hold our officers for their actions now."
A statement which was echoed nearly word for word by then annoyed MPD Director Walter Winfrey in the mid-1990s. In 1994 former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, responding to calls from the African-American community asserting police brutality, pushed council into passing an ordinance making way for the creation of a nine-member citizen review board.
It would take almost another year and a half before the appointees were named. But, the response was overwhelming. In a year the review board had more than 370 complaints against the police. But, having no money allocated to hire their own investigators, all information was turned over to MPD's internal affairs unit, where nearly all the complaints were either dropped or deemed to have no merit.
"The board had no subpoena power," Watkins said. "So MPD's cooperation was purely voluntary. As well as if the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, even if it found in your favor could only send a recommendation back to the police department."
A worse recipe for failure you couldn't begin to find. Two years ago the Wharton administration quietly shifted the weak board's duties to the city attorney's office as filed complaints dwindled to less than a handful. But then is anybody really willing to listen?
"Between language barriers and just having problems and difficulties understanding how the system works, and that it is broken, it is very difficult for any member of the immigrant or refugee community to actually go through with any form of reporting," said Iris Mercado of Tennessee Immigration & Refugee Rights Coalition.
"There is a board," added Memphis Chief Administrative Officer George Little. "We do need to update the appointments. But, if a complaint came forward today, we could convene the board, with acting members, and hear that complaint."
Members of the coalition Memphis United hope to meet with Director Armstrong and CAO Little in the near future to talk about reviving the review board.
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