In the days that have followed since US Marshals killed Frayser resident, Brandon Webber in the process of serving a warrant for his arrest on allegations of Mr. Webber being involved in car theft and a shooting in Southaven, Mississippi, many questions remain unanswered.
We at MSPJC want to extend our deepest sympathies to the family and loved ones of Brandon Webber, who now will have no day in court to answer for these allegations. We are also grateful that there was no further loss of life nor any loss of life among law enforcement despite the false statements made by Sen Marsha Blackburn. The growing conversation since has been dominated by dissecting every part of this young man’s life. Since then there have been numerous questions, calls for peace, and a series of recriminations.
Memphis sits at a sadly familiar crossroads. Steven Askew, Terrance Calton, Martavious Banks, Darrius Stewart, Abdoulaye Thiam—the list of names seems endless—young black men who were shot by Memphis Police officers, convicted of wrongdoing in the media, and at no point does the public see any accountability or transparency following subsequent investigations. These tensions are taking all of us to a dangerous place as many in our community feel that police can kill young black men and women with seeming impunity.
These are but some of the underlying causes for last week’s events, decades of frustrations that cannot be so easily alleviated, especially when the path forward seems unclear.
Another aspect of the badly needed conversation are deescalation tactics and cultural sensitivity training and standards of behavior and conduct. MPD officers, taunting an already grieving and angry crowd as seen on live-stream only served to bait and incite violence. However, even this analysis risks missing a larger point. When we reduce every situation to individuals, we ignore systemic and procedural factors that drive the issue. We often try to atomize each situation down to a “case by case” basis, which on the surface seems reasonable, but “case by case” can also become a smoke screen to ignore systemic issues and patterns.
It also makes every dispute a personal one, between the community and the individual officer/s, but not the institutions responsible. Thus, even when an officer is found guilty of wrongdoing, the blame is thrust solely upon that individual officer, and there is never a systemic review of policies and practices. The misuse of the term “bad apples,” which is not about an individual making a group look bad, but a warning about how corruption if unaddressed spreads furthers this atomization.
We at MSPJC have had conversations for years with individuals in Law Enforcement who often express that the community does not understand what it’s like for them. We think this is largely true, but it is true because the institutions of law enforcement don’t give the public information about their actual internal processes or procedures or policies.
The rules are often kept hidden and then selectively revealed to the public on a “need to know” basis.
The entire mindset of this is part of the problem and further alienates the community that Law Enforcement is tasked to serve. This creates a toxic power dynamic, making it harder for the average citizen to even know if proper procedure is being followed in the first place. This, in turn, decreases the likelihood that a complaint filed with internal affairs will be sustained due to semantics—and that is the intention, if we want to be intellectually honest. This makes it nearly impossible for the institution of MPD to be fully trusted, and by extension this falls on the individual officers.
So often, the only outlet for residents who do want to learn more is via MPD’s own processes with things like ride-alongs, the Ambassadors Program, and other such things Our concern with ride-alongs and some of these programs, is that they serve more as a persuasion/recruitment tool than an informative/collaborative one. It reduces the position and responsibilities of law enforcement officers, away from the systemic and towards an anecdotal, sympathetic, and individualized narrative. It’s also a program that is completely under the power of the agency being questioned. In all things, it’s either MPD’s way or the highway.
What we need is real transparency about Law Enforcement agencies, their rules of engagement, policies concerning descalation and escalation, so that the public can fully understand them. The public also needs full information about their rights during encounters with law enforcement. We need a truly collaborative atmosphere and attitude from the leadership of such agencies.
As it stands, one cannot truly work with MPD. You can work for MPD, or you can be labeled as against MPD, but there is no true give and take, in a collaborative manner from the institution of MPD with the community. That puts the officers in the middle.
We need a crime fighting strategy drafted from the communities involved to be executed by MPD, rather than predetermined courses of action that are sold to the community or hoisted upon them without consent. This goes for redevelopment plans as well, which often work the exact same ways in our poorest communities.
We are very disappointed that Mayor Jim Strickland spoke with so little empathy or understanding of what really happened on last Wednesday, with the horrible loss of life of Brandon Webber, and that It was yet another canary in the coalmine of the massive historic and generational issues between the black community and MPD.
MSPJC still has the following questions, which so far, remain unanswered:
1. Who ordered and authorized the use of tear gas, and when? Was the Mayor consulted, and when did he know?
2. When was local Law Enforcement informed by the Marshals that an arrest was being attempted of an alleged dangerous criminal, in a residential area?
3. How many officers who were injured was due to tear gas?
4. Is MPD investigating or disciplining the officers who were taunting and telling the crowd to “bring it” earlier in the night before things escalated?
5. What are MPD crowd control procedures? Were they properly followed?
To be clear, there is no relationship to heal, because the relationship for the Black community has never been a good one. On a core level, that is what we have to deal with as a city. There’s no better time in the past and one can’t expect generations of Memphians to mistrust their own eyes without any systemic willingness to change.
We have to build something new and we have to do that together.
What we hope our Mayor and our leadership in Law Enforcement and many others will pause and consider is, while people keep talking about improving the relationship, what are you willing to actually do? What are you willing to change? How can we move from decades of tactics like “Jump and Grab” and occupation-style tactics like Blue Crush to actual collaborative relationships?
Peace has a price. Are our elected and appointed leaders ready and willing to give up power and secrecy to embrace peace?