The Commercial Appeal
Rogue officers an MPD legacy
Corruption arrests down, but misconduct an ongoing issue
In 2005, Memphians were confronted with the sordid story of Patrick Joynt, a rogue Memphis Police Department officer who wrecked nine patrol cars, drew reprimands for careless use of his firearm, went AWOL and made unwelcome advances toward female citizens and city employees.
hen finally convicted in an FBI sting of stealing $12,000 from a drug dealer, Joynt emerged as something of a symbol for MPD’s tarnished image. He was one of 46 MPD officers and employees charged with corruption between 2004 and 2009 — an average of nearly eight a year — many with long disciplinary records like Joynt’s. MPD employees were charged with stealing huge sums of cash and drugs from the evidence room, providing protection to criminals, running drugs, even planting evidence on innocent drivers during traffic stops.
Though the number of corruption arrests at MPD has slowed, a recent spate of trouble has Mayor A C Wharton asking fresh questions about the department.
Wharton didn’t say it at a press
conference last week, but records show 22 MPD officers and employees have been arrested this year, mostly for drunken driving, domestic violence and off-duty theft or vandalism.
“I think they’re much better now,” said Bruce Kramer, a civil rights attorney who over the years has filed police brutality and other suits against MPD alleging major misconduct. “It’s better than it was. Does that mean it’s where it should be? No.”
The most immediate development behind Wharton’s concern involves the Sept. 24 off-duty police shooting death of 15-yearold Justin Thompson during a reported robbery. It’s the second shooting death for the officer involved. Terrance Shaw, 28, also killed a man during a 2009 on-duty shooting ruled a justifiable homicide. Shaw is suspended with pay. Police have released few details.
The incident quickly follows federal charges on Sept. 17 against officer Sean McWhirter, 30, who is accused of transporting prostitutes between Memphis and Tunica, Miss.
“How do we hold officers accountable? That’s the key thing,” Wharton said at a news conference where he promised a sweeping review of disciplinary, recruiting, hiring and training policies at MPD.
Similar concerns under former Police Director Larry Godwin led to beefed-up drug and psychological testing for new recruits as well as abandonment of a practice known as “waivers.” To be hired, any police recruit with an arrest history in Tennessee must first receive a waiver from the state Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission. The practice became so suspect in Memphis, Godwin gave it up.
Godwin subscribed to the prevalent theory at MPD that corruption there largely is the work of rogue individuals or small cliques of wrongdoers and is not reflective of any endemic problem.
“You’re dealing with some rogue cops. You’re not dealing with full-blown (entrenched) corruption where they’re taking payoffs and it’s going up the ladder to supervisors,” Godwin said before retiring last year.
One thing is clear, says criminal justice professor John A. Eterno of Molloy College in New York: Vigilance is critical.
“It really is something you have to stay on top of. And it’s not just the department. There’s a strong need of transparency,” said Eterno, a former captain with the New York City Police Department.
Lack of transparency concerns Wharton, who said last week the limited information released about the Thompson shooting and similar incidents “perplexes me.”
Eterno, who edited the book “Police Practices in Global Perspective,” said a similar thread runs through corrupt police agencies, whether it’s the Russian police or the notoriously venal New Orleans Police Department.
“You have to clean up the department first before you can expect them to police crime,” Eterno said. “Without them setting an example you can’t expect them to enforce the law.”
Attorney Kramer said an adequate review of MPD must be wide ranging and consider items like the low pay for new officers, the city’s racial polarization and the very culture of government here. But, he said, he’s optimistic.
“In the past there was a siege mentality. Any criticism was unwanted criticism,” he said. “The mindset of A C Wharton and (Police Director) Toney Armstrong is they want to do the right thing.”