Stop-and-start federal review of Memphis police is on again

March 3, 2017 GMT

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — After announcing Friday morning it would halt a review and reform process of the Memphis Police Department, the U.S. Justice Department later said the process will continue after all.

City and federal officials agreed to resolve their differences over missed deadlines for submitting paperwork.

The Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, first said it was stopping its comprehensive review of the department because the parties could not agree on a memorandum of agreement “within a reasonable time period.”

Later, the Justice Department and the city both released statements saying the agreement was back in place. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland signed the memorandum around 10 a.m., before the first Justice Department news release was distributed to media, the city said.

City officials expressed shock at the Justice Department’s first announcement, and attributed it to a miscommunication.

The Justice Department later said it has received the signed memorandum.

“The COPS Office is pleased to proceed with collaborative reform and applauds the City of Memphis and Memphis Police Department for their leadership,” the department’s later statement said. “The COPS Office looks forward to a productive engagement.”

Justice Department officials launched the review in October after citizens criticized police use of deadly force and treatment of the black community in this majority African-American city. Strickland and Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said at the time that the city invited federal authorities to review the department’s policies involving community-oriented policing and the use of deadly force.

The review began after an announcement in September that federal officials found insufficient evidence to file civil rights charges in the July 2015 fatal shooting of a black man by a white officer. The shooting followed a traffic stop that escalated into a fight between 19-year-old Darrius Stewart and Officer Connor Schilling.

Stewart’s family is suing the city, accusing the police department of having policies that make it “okay to shoot first and ask questions second.” The city is challenging the lawsuit.

A Stewart family attorney is criticizing the police department and the Justice Department.

“The family of Darrius Stewart has little faith in the City of Memphis and the Department of Justice under the embattled Attorney General Jeff Sessions,” said Carlos Moore, a lawyer for Henry Williams, Stewart’s father. “Neither to date has proven trustworthy but my client Henry Williams continues to hope against hope for not only justice for his son Darrius but for real systemic reform in the Memphis Police Department.”

When the review was announced, President Barack Obama was still in office and Edward Stanton III was still the U.S. attorney for West Tennessee. Obama left office in January after Donald Trump won the November presidential election, and Stanton has resigned. An acting U.S. attorney is temporarily replacing him.

Sessions, appointed by Trump, has been criticized by activists for his record dealing with civil rights issues as a U.S. attorney in Alabama.

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 in Memphis connecting Tennessee and Arkansas, sparking meetings between members of the black community and city leaders.

Criticism of the police department has escalated in recent weeks. Two federal civil rights lawsuits have been filed over a police department list of about 80 people who require a police escort when they visit City Hall. When it was initially released last month, the list included Black Lives Matter protesters, former City Hall employees and people accused of harassment and making threats.

Plaintiffs in both lawsuits claim the list was politically motivated. Rallings has said the list was compiled only for safety reasons.

City officials released a shorter list on Feb. 24, after removing more than 40 protesters from the list contained in the so-called “security book” located at the front desk of City Hall.


Associated Press reporter Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report