Urged on by citizens and area activists, Shelby County Commissioners are considering a trio of ordinances crafted to prevent abuses of power by Shelby County Sheriff’s deputies, including banning the use of specialized units.

Commissioners discussed the proposed ordinances during their regular meeting Monday (Aug. 14). During the meeting, commissioners also approved more than $1.5 million in funding to help redevelop the old Southwest Twin drive-in.

The Sheriff Department related ordinances are similarly worded to an ordinance passed by the Memphis City Council on March 2, following the bludgeoning death of Tyre Nichols by MPD officers, assigned to a special unit, on Jan. 7. Nichols died Jan.10 as result of the beating.

Like the commission’s proposals, the council’s action originally was in three parts.

“I am sponsoring each of these ordinances really to show support for community organizing and advocates who are pushing the issues,” said commissioner Britney Thornton.

The proposed commission ordinances would:

  • Abolish specialized units and prevent the Sheriff’s Department from participating in multi-jurisdictional task forces.
  • Halt the practice of pretextual stops for low-level traffic violations. These include infractions like busted taillights, sagging bumper, or improperly placed tag, for example.
    Create a database to compile information on traffic stops, arrests, use-of-force, and complaints against officers.
  • It quickly became apparent, however, that the first item would require further discussion. Commissioners decided the proposed wording needed clarification to complement a later resolution. As a result, motions were made to continue debate.

All three items will be brought up for a second reading on Aug. 23. All received unfavorable recommendations in committee.

“As I am assessing and reading the room, item number 16 (dealing the banning of special units) is going to require some additional conversations because I don’t think we have the support that we need to see it through on its third reading,” said Thornton.

Beyond the wording, a fundamental issue with the resolution, at least with a more conservative member, is the potential vacuum in police work that could occur throughout the county if specialized units were disbanded.

Since the MPD’s specialized units were disbanded, unmarked SCSD vehicles have been put on patrol within Memphis.

“As this is being moved to a future date, I just want to point out, the Shelby County Sheriff’s office specialized units are being mentioned. I must say the ones that are being requested to do away with, being such a high-crime county, we’re going to do away with the specialized unit that deliver warrants to murderers, attempted murderers, carjackers, rapists, and crimes against children,” cautioned commissioner Amber Mills.

Like the runup to the City Council’s vote, several community members spoke in support of the ordinances during the commission’s meeting.
However, supporters were cautioned against the potential efficacy of the ordinances. Since the sheriff is an elected position, too, the commission has limited ability to govern the SCSD’s function.

“We can make these requests all day, but when we talk about things not being watered down and effective, there’s only so much that we can actually do and effectuate. These things are conceptually great, but when we pass it off to the Sheriff’s Office, it’s up to his office to decide to actually put it into practice,” said Thornton.

Nichols, 29, was stopped at a light on Jan. 2, for allegedly driving recklessly. Offering no resistance, he was tasered and pepper sprayed. Fleeing on foot, officers eventually caught up to him two blocks from his mother’s Hickory Hill home. For three minutes, five officers of the Memphis Police Department’s Scorpion Unit beat, tasered and peppered sprayed.

The five officers, all African American, were fired and charged with second-degree murder and other serious felonies.

While the ordinances are still being ironed out, Shelby County Commissioners Monday also took a step toward improving the conditions of Southwest Memphis’ Westwood community, by approving a resolution to provide $1,548,900 to revitalize the space that had been the home of the long-derelict Southwest Twin drive-in.

Built in 1956, the theater at South Third Street and Raines Road first closed in 1965. However, it was reopened in 1968, as a twin theater. Along with the Summer Drive-in, they were Memphis’ only drive-in theaters until its final closure in 2001.

The spot later became the location of the Southwest Flea Market, until it was shut down by the FBI a few years later. Since then, it has become a long-running eyesore for the underserved community.