Justice Department to conduct review of Memphis police

FILE (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)
FILE (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — The Justice Department has launched a comprehensive review of the Memphis Police Department, officials said Wednesday, after citizens criticized the department’s use of deadly force and its treatment of the black community.

Federal and local officials announced the details during a news conference at the office of U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III in Memphis. Mayor Jim Strickland and Police Director Michael Rallings said the city invited federal authorities to review the department’s policies involving community-oriented policing and the use of deadly force, in efforts to undertake collaborative reform of the department.

The announcement comes a month after the Justice Department completed its review of the fatal shooting of a 19-year-old black man by a white police officer in July 2015. The review found insufficient evidence to charge Officer Connor Schilling with civil rights violations in the shooting of Darrius Stewart. Schilling shot Stewart twice during a fight that began when Schilling tried to arrest Stewart on an active warrant at a traffic stop.

The independent review will require cooperation and engagement from community members, city government leaders and the police department — including rank-and-file officers, said Noble Wray, an official with the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. Wray said the purpose of collaborative reform is to improve trust between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve.

“It is not a short term solution for serious deficiencies, but rather a long term strategy that first identifies issues within the department, and then you start to work on specific strategies and approaches to build trust with the community,” Wray told reporters at the news conference.

Fourteen other cities are undergoing similar reviews, including San Francisco, Milwaukee and North Charleston, South Carolina. Wray said the Memphis review will take about two years and will make recommendations for reform. Reports will be made public during the review and when it is completed, he said.

“You really do open yourself up to a lot of scrutiny,” Wray said. “These reports sometimes can be pretty harsh.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation issued an 800-page report on the Stewart shooting and gave its findings to Shelby County district attorney Amy Weirich. A grand jury declined to indict Schilling, ignoring Weirich’s recommendation that the officer face state charges of voluntary manslaughter and employment of a firearm during the commission of a dangerous felony.

Stewart’s family has called for a federal investigation into the police department. While the review falls short of a civil rights investigation, Stewart’s family is still welcoming it, said Carlos Moore, a lawyer for Henry Williams, Stewart’s father.

“Darrius Stewart’s death was not in vain,’ Moore said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. “Out of an unspeakable tragedy, something good is on the horizon for the city of Memphis. The family has long desired to see this day.”

Stewart’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the city of Memphis earlier this summer that accuses the police department of having policies that make it “okay to shoot first and ask questions second.” The city is challenging the lawsuit.

Like other U.S. cities, Memphis has seen protests related to racial profiling and the use of deadly force against unarmed black men. In July, protesters blocked the heavily-traveled Interstate 40 bridge connecting Tennessee and Arkansas in Memphis, sparking meetings between members of the black community and city leaders.

Rallings, the police chief, said no single incident led to the request for the review. He said the department is “fully committed to making a difference in our community.”

“There’s no fluff. We want to improve,” Rallings said.

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