Indirect subpoena power gives CLERB new teeth

The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board was founded in 1994 to review complaints made against members of the Memphis Police Department, but it was only in late 2015 that the board received real powers.

When citizens have concerns over law enforcement they can take those complaints to the police department. It’s part of the role of an internal affairs department to investigate complaints of police misconduct.

In addition to that, the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board was founded in 1994 to review complaints made against members of the Memphis Police Department. But for an organization meant to review a community’s law enforcement efforts, the power to make decisions seems to be an important step for success.

But those teeth have been missing for the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, an independent, non-police mayoral agency with the authority to investigate allegations of misconduct filed by citizens against the city of Memphis police officers. Except for a period of dormancy that began in 2011, the board has existed to review cases of misconduct since 1994.

But it was only in recent months that it finally got its teeth, so to speak, to not only hear from complainants but also the officers who are being complained about.

“This board was enacted and a good idea in concept, but when it came to make up it just wasn’t doing the job,” said the Rev. Ralph White of Bloomfield Full Gospel Baptist Church who has been part of CLERB since 2003 and is serving his third term as chairman. “We referred to it as not having enough teeth. We didn’t have the ability to bring in officers if questions came up related to their conduct. The organization was so ineffective it gradually moved to being just inoperable.”

CLERB investigates complaints of force, verbal abuse, harassment, intimidation, improper firearm use or other issues with police.

Previously the organization didn’t have the ability to bring in officers if questions arose related to their conduct. The board could listen to complaints, even hearing witnesses brought by the complainants. But by law, the police officers couldn’t be brought in.

“The organization was so ineffective it gradually moved to being just inoperable,” White said.

The board doesn’t have subpoena power but it now can interview police officers who are recommended to the City Council. That change came about in November when the council voted to give it indirect subpoena power.

The CLERB ordinance now gives the board the ability to subpoena officers and documents through the Memphis City Council.

As its name implies, CLERB reviews decisions by the Memphis Police Department’s Internal Affairs division, which has 45 days to complete an investigation. If a complainant isn’t satisfied with that decision, they can go to CLERB, which serves as an appeals board.

The police director and police union had come out in opposition to the review board, but all parties were able to come to an agreement over the board’s current power.

The board now meets at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library where it recently heard its first case.

While there are national concerns over what has been perceived as excessive force exhibited by law enforcement, the Memphis effort isn’t in response to any recent issues. The board was brought about because of citizen complaints years ago.

“There were problems with the police department and citizens saw a need to connect the community with some of those complaints beyond what internal affairs was doing,” White said. “Internal affairs is still active but citizens wanted an alternative. In their eyes they saw internal affairs as police policing police. They mostly came out in favor of police.”

White said it’s important to note that the CLERB effort isn’t there to bash the police. He’s been involved in the program because he has an interest in working with young people, those who are – in his words – caught up in the system. But he also has a good relationship with the police department and wants to give everyone a fair shake, so to speak.

“We have to come up with ways to deal with these issues and deal with these individuals rather than dismiss them,” White said, referring to instances of police officers who have had complaints lodged against them. “It’s a matter of sitting down and working together. Hopefully that’s what we can do with this board.”

CLERB won’t step in and hear every complaint. An individual has to file a complaint going through the Internal Affairs division. If not satisfied with that result, he or she can appeal to CLERB, which then will go through the evidence and make another judgement or say it agrees with the finding.

If the individual disagrees with CLERB’s decision he or she can choose to hire an attorney and take the matter to court. But once it enters the legal arena, CLERB is no longer part of the process.

Plenty of other cities have versions of CLERB, and the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement is a nonprofit organization that works to enhance accountability and transparency in policing.

And with similar organizations in cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, there are measuring sticks for CLERB, and White said the Memphis effort isn’t as sophisticated.

“Our budget initially was taken away and it eventually became defunct,” he said, adding that the emergence of a new board and new powers should help.

And while there have been reports of police misconduct in other cities, incidents of a police shooting or murder aren’t cases that can be heard by the CLERB. In Tennessee those cases are turned over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation who investigates those cases before turning them back over to the district attorney.

“It’s up to the DA if she releases to the public,” White said, referring to Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich. “There is a lot more red tape that circumvents our efforts. There are some individuals out there still wondering what happened to their child or their husband. State law is that TBI doesn’t have to reveal that. … I think our legislators are working on that. It’s too much power and takes away the power of citizens.

“All in all, I think it will be a good thing,” White continued about CLERB’s efforts. “Citizens can at least get some relief in knowing there is an alternative and we don’t have to wait and listen to what internal affairs tells us.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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