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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

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Bridging the police-community gap — Q&A with Sgt. Essica Cage, the MPA’s new president

by Louis Goggans — 

A product of South Memphis and a veteran of the Memphis Police Department (MPD), Sgt. Essica Cage remains committed to ensuring law enforcement and the community develop a stronger relationship – one that makes the city a better place for all.

It’s been 23 years since she took an oath to protect and serve her community, and she recently made history as the first female president of the Memphis Police Association (MPA).

Cage spoke with The New Tri-State Defender about her plans as the MPA’s new president, addressed the relationship shift between law enforcement and locals, and also touched on Memphis’ alarming homicide rate. 

TSD: How does it feel to be the first woman to lead the MPA?

Sgt. Essica Cage: It’s a big deal. It’s exciting, and I’m really looking forward to the challenges. I’ve received so much support, so many prayers from people who I didn’t even think were paying attention.

I know it’s going to be difficult. To be the first of anything is always challenging, and I’m ready for it. It’s important that I’m the first woman of the Memphis Police Association, but I think it’s more important to me that I do a good job.

TSD: With all of the civil unrest and demands for racial equity and criminal justice reform right now, is it intimidating for you to take on this role? And what are some of your key plans as the MPA’s new president?

Cage: I wouldn’t say it’s intimidating. I think I’m capable, and I think what will help me is my communication skills. Before this role, I was the MPA’s vice president for several years. I’ve been around in discussions with people in city government as high as the mayor, but I’m also able to communicate with the kids in communities like Westwood.

I will say I don’t know how to fix the issues, but I think with a listening ear and effective communication with members of the community we can establish more trust. I want that old feel back – what it used to feel like riding through the neighborhood.

We have to listen to the community and what their issues are with police, and I think the community has to listen to our concerns and issues as well. If we can understand each other, we can fill in some of the gaps.

TSD: What would you say is the ultimate goal and responsibility of the MPA?

Cage: To be the voice of the men and women who are police officers in the city of Memphis. They’re the ones out there working, serving the public.

A lot of people may get it twisted. They think our role is to just defend officers, and I think that’s been misinterpreted. We don’t defend wrong. If an officer has done something wrong, that’s something they’re going to have to answer for, but the MPA is going to make sure the officer has due process just like anybody else would during any other type of investigation.

TSD: What would you say has been one of the biggest demands the MPA has heard from officers since you’ve been an active member of the union?

Cage: There’s nothing in particular that stands out, but I will say this, Memphis is unique. We’re a majority-black city, and we also have a Police Department that reflects the demographic of the community. A lot of the issues that police departments in other cities are experiencing, we don’t have those problems here. Now, of course, you’re going to hear a story here and there, but I like to think that we’ve done much better.

MPA President Sgt. Essica Cage. (Courtesy photo)

TSD: Out of your 20-plus years on the force, what has been one of your most rewarding experiences?

Cage: When I was a patrol officer, I was a part of the COACT – now known as the Community Outreach Program initiative – in the Westwood community. We had mentoring programs at all of the schools in the area, and were able to work directly with the children.

That was the most rewarding work I’ve done on the Police Department – to actually be embedded in the schools and establish relationships with the kids and the neighborhoods was so fulfilling. A lot of the kids are now adults, and I still keep in contact with them.

TSD: Considering the ongoing issues regarding police brutality and officer-involved shootings, how have you witnessed the MPD’s relationship with the community change over the years?

Cage: Back when I first started years ago, there were so many officers; we were fully staffed and able to have programs like COACT in each community in the city. We were able to do a lot of proactive policing.

But now that climate has changed a little bit. Nationwide, police departments are having issues recruiting and retaining officers. It’s not just a thing happening in Memphis, but because we’re so short on officers, we’re more of a reactive department now.

A lot of the officers who have been with the department for a long time will tell you, ‘It’s just not fun anymore.’ People were very supportive, and because of the national climate, the perception of police has changed a lot. It’s definitely different.

TSD: Has the swayed perception of police sparked a call for reform in Memphis?

Cage: Absolutely. No one hates a bad cop more than a good cop because it makes us all look bad.

At the MPA, one of the things we’ve done is present Cops Against Injustice, but it wasn’t something that we could broadcast widely. We didn’t want counter-protesters, but we did want to take a stance.

We are against injustice as a whole, from excessive force by police officers to little kids being shot in their front yards while they’re playing or sleeping in their beds.

The MPD and the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office got out on Germantown Parkway and had our own rally. We don’t like injustice, excessive force or police brutality. We hate it. It makes us all look bad.

TSD: How do you feel about the impact the MPA has had on the MPD and the city of Memphis?

Cage: Over the years, we have done so much to get other members involved. We’ve changed the look of the MPA. Our board is more diverse, there are more women who are involved, and our membership, overall, is more informed.

We’ve also created the Memphis Police Association Charitable Foundation, where we assist officers who may have a life-changing event – their house burns down, they lose a child, etc. Through the Foundation, we also help kids in the community, and support officers who have nonprofits, and host community efforts.

The Charitable Foundation has probably been one of the most rewarding things that the MPA has put in place.

TSD: This year, Memphis has had an alarming number of homicides. In July alone, there were 43, the highest number of homicides in one month in the city’s history thus far. Do you think the pandemic has played a role in the rapid increase, and what do you think can be done by both law enforcement and the community to curb the violence?

Cage: In larger metro areas like Memphis and Chicago, we’re having record years. All I can think is that it’s linked to the pandemic, but I don’t know if there are any connections with a lot of the victims.

It’s disheartening to see the numbers. We have to get more officers so that we can do more outreach in communities, but we also have to be accountable ourselves.

As members of the community, if we know somebody did something, we have to tell law enforcement. Call it snitching if you want to, but I call it getting a killer off the street. The police can’t be everywhere at once. We can’t see everything. We need the help of the citizens.

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