by James Coleman —

Efforts to reform the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department took a step back this week after resolutions aimed at curbing excessive force failed to gain enough support during a Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting on Monday (Oct. 12).

The proposed reforms followed waves of protests – locally and nationally – arising from the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others by law enforcement officers.

Ordinance 15 would have disqualified applicants from public safety positions if they had been previously terminated for excessive force. The officer or deputy also would lose their Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification if they had been fired or disciplined for excessive force. The resolution also called for the establishment of a tracking system for those officers. It failed by a vote of 5-5.

“I am asking about passing something of substance,” said Commissioner Tami Sawyer, who cosponsored the resolutions.

“This is not about punishing anyone, it is about ensuring that one we improve the relationship between the police, between the Sheriff’s Department, between the corrections department. Or else, we are going to have summers where this city and this county continue to burn.”

Much of the discussion centered on the differences between current policy and the proposed expansion.

“It is not going to have a direct impact, we are already doing it, is what I am saying,” said Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr., when asked if the proposed changes would hinder his department.

Under current policy, if a complaint is made against a safety officer, it is sent to the POST board for review. During this time, the officer is allowed to mount a defense.

“If an officer is found guilty of excessive force it goes from an oral reprimand to a termination on the very first offense,” said Bonner.

“When we terminate an officer, that officer would not be hired by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. As a matter of fact, that officer would not be hired even in the state of Tennessee.”

Bonner also mentioned the National Decertification Index that collects data on out-of-state officers who were terminated. Other layers of oversight within the department for the use of force, including allegations of excessive force, were also highlighted.

Chief Inspector Anthony Buckner, director of Training for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department, added, “We have robust policies and procedures, standard operating procedures that address these particular issues from the very beginning when use of force is used. Whether it is excessive or not, it goes through an aggressive review process starting with the frontline supervisors – the sergeants, the lieutenants, the captains.

“If any of those individuals believe the use of force is outside of our policies, we also have an internal affairs division that can conduct a more extensive investigation.”

Earlier steps the County Commission had taken to recognize the problem of excessive force and how they fall short of addressing the issue were discussed.

“One of the things that I would like to note is that we have taken some nominal efforts. Just this year, we named Juneteenth as a holiday. We recognized racism as a pandemic,” said Sawyer.

“We also adopted the Eight Can’t Wait set of recommendations for policing. Nominal. Most of those are the ribbon on gift wrap. Now I am asking us to pass what is inside the box.”

The Eight Can’t Wait recommendations call for the banning of chokeholds and strangulations and shooting from vehicles. It also requires officers to exhaust all alternatives before using deadly force. It imposes a duty to intervene and establishes a force continuum. It also requires comprehensive reporting.

Critics argue that many police forces around the country already have many of these policies in place. It also does little to address allegations of institutional racism.

The commission also shot down a resolution on a 6-6 vote that would have limited the purchase or procurement of decommissioned military equipment. The proposal also would have put in place clear rules to limit their use by county law enforcement agencies.

It will be brought up for a fourth reading during the next committee meeting.