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Council curbs police traffic-stop moves

After several weeks of crafting, debate, protests and delays, the Memphis City Council Tuesday (April 11) passed a long-awaited ordinance to end pretextual traffic stops by the Memphis Police Department.

Among the council’s other actions Tuesday, members once again postponed, until April 25, the first vote on new council district boundaries for the upcoming October City Council elections.

Regarding the new pretextual stop ordinance, sponsor Michalyn Easter-Thomas said, “I wanted to make sure it was as enforceable as possible … as well as maintaining clarity in what this ordinance is asking, saying what it is and what it’s not saying.”

Easter-Thomas continued, “What this ordinance is, is surrounding the idea of pretextual stops; how they aren’t helpful and how they divert resources away from our clearly intentioned needs in our community, such as dealing with crime and aiding our citizens.

The ordinance’s goal is to limit the number of interactions motorists have with police. It is one of six ordinances passed following the beating of Tyre Nichols by Memphis police officers on Jan. 7 after officers said he had been driving recklessly. He died Jan. 10. 

Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis has said investigators found no evidence that Nichols was driving recklessly.

Modeled on similar ordinances passed in five other cities, the latest being Philadelphia, the “Driver Equality Act,” which was amended to add Nichols’ name to the title, will end the practice of police pullovers for minor non-driving-related infractions, such as an expired tag, or a busted taillight.

Police departments nationwide have used pretextual traffic stops as an enforcement tool to find contraband such as illegal weapons and narcotics. 

However, critics of such tactics accused the police, in some cases, of using the stops to harass people of color, which too often have resulted in violent interactions with officers.

The ordinance passed Tuesday also halts MPD traffic stops for other “secondary” violations like, improperly displaying temporary registration permits, registration plates not securely fastened, broken, or improperly working lighting, such as a headlight, and loosely secured, or missing bumpers. 

Expired tags will receive a 60-day grace period. It goes into effect immediately.

“These are things that can be seen in the light of ‘poverty stops.’ Things that will require individuals to pay citations (because they cannot afford to pay for repairs),” said Easter-Thomas.

Instead, the intent is to refocus police attention on the “primary” problems plaguing Memphis roadways, like aggressive driving. 

“That will be a primary violation and then, if that primary violation is done, and then you have these other things. That’s what this ordinance is saying, it’s OK to tack on to this citation,” clarified Easter-Thomas. 

MPD Chief Davis has voiced her support for the ordinance.

Earlier, Council Vice Chair JB Smiley Jr. tabled his proposal to the six Nichols-related ordinances into one ordinance. Those ordinances include reforms concerning police oversight and training.

However, the council’s Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee members feared repeating the ordinances, which already are in the City Charter, could sow confusion.

Like in previous Nichols-related votes, the meeting was greeted by strong opinions, applause, and several disruptions.

Amber Sherman of The Official Black Lives Matter Memphis Chapter was barred from entering the City Council chambers. (Photo: Gary S. Whitlow/GSW Enterprises/The New Tri-State Defender)

Public debate was cut short after protesters drowned out speakers with shouts of “Let them in.” 

Council Chairman Martavius Jones had banned several activists from attending and speaking at the council session because they had used profanity in remarks at earlier council sessions.

The ban drew comparisons from the audience to the plights of state Reps. Justin Pearson and Justin Jones. Both were expelled from the Republican-controlled Tennessee House for protesting the lack of action on gun reform, after a recent mass shooting at a Nashville private school.

Activists have been a regular presence at council meetings since the death of Nichols.

“I have to say it again, we listened…Seeing this number of people in the audience is encouraging, because we have too many issues where it can be radio silence. So, I’m just grateful for you all coming out and letting your voices be heard,” said Jones.

As proposed now, the new boundaries would create a council district for Cordova, as well as consolidating Downtown Memphis, North Memphis and Frayser into one district.

The new lines were drawn by an ad hoc redistricting group, which featured input from residents in each district.

If the new schedule remains in place, the third and final reading on the ordinance will be held on May 16.

Chairman Jones halted a vote on the plan during a specially called meeting on April 5 after he was denied an extension of the April 14 deadline to approve maps by the Shelby County Election Commission.

The Election Commission begins issuing qualifying petitions on May 22. All 13 council seats will be on the October ballot. The council is comprised of seven single-seat districts, along with two super districts, each with three council members.

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