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County Commissioners give first-reading approval to measures to curb over-policing

Under pressure from on-hand activists, Shelby County Commissioners on Monday approved three work-in-progress ordinances in their first reading to curb over-policing by Shelby County Sheriff Office’s deputies.

However, the ordinances to ban specialized units, end pretextual traffic stops and create a data collection system on police interactions following traffic stops all fell short of the seven votes that will be needed to pass in their third and final reading.

A ban on task forces and specialized units – such as the Memphis Police Department unit that stopped motorist Tyre Nichols on the night of his death – has been the most difficult to navigate.

“I echo the sentiments of those who have come down to speak today. I just ask that we open our minds to this particular ordinance, which I know probably has the most opposition,” said sponsor Britney Thornton. “I think that whenever we get the opportunity to contemplate a better use of our operation, then it’s incumbent upon us to do so.”

The ordinance would also end participation in multi-jurisdictional and multi-agency task forces. The SCSO currently cooperates with the MPD in several ongoing operations. Conversations with Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner are ongoing. A follow up meeting has been scheduled before the second reading.

One commissioner warned the resolution could also make it impossible for some deputies – such as undercover narcotics officers – to perform their jobs.

“I’m 74-years old. I have experienced all of this. I have experienced walking while Black; talking while Black; driving while Black; living and breathing while Black. I have been stopped many times. Many times. My life has been threatened. I have had police escorts because someone did not like me based on the color of my skin,” said Commissioner Henri Brooks.

“But, let me say this to you, I’m reading this. I’m reading and I’m hearing you. But, also…maybe we need to come to the table, because there’s some things in here that really would put me in jeopardy as a 74-year-old senior citizen.”

Voting against the item were Brooks, and Commissioners Amber Mills, Mick Wright, David Bradford, Amber Morrison, Shante Avant and Mark Whaley.

Thornton was the only yes vote.

Commissioners Edmund Ford, Jr., Miska Clay-Bibbs and Mickell Lowery abstained.

Vote-wise, the other ordinances faired little better.

For example, the ordinance banning pretextual stops mustered yes votes from members, while five members voted it down. Brooks abstained.

Such stops typically occur over low-level violations, like a expired tag or sagging bumper. The ban also seeks to limit searches, questioning and the use of unmarked vehicles. It would also bar surveillance as an alternative to pretextual stops. The policy has been criticized for targeting minorities and low-income motorists.

“In this city – where we’re listed as the most dangerous city in the country – you know, those resources could be better utilized, as opposed to stopping people on the street because of the color of their skin, or things of that nature, could be better utilized in catching these criminals,” said Erika Sugarmon.

While all three items were presented in amended form, after being sent back to committee on Aug. 14, the resolution concerning data collection has undergone the most refinement. Among the changes from the last meeting are a phased rollout. This will allow time for budget amendments, to fund the program.

“The phases we’re talking about, the currently collected data that the Sheriff’s office collects, and then report that through a third-party data aggregator, so that the data’s objective. It’s not housed internally. It’s something that’s looked at independently,” said co-sponsor Mark Whaley.

Starting on July 1, the program would gather the data collected by the SCSO. Instead of being housed internally, it would then be reported to a third-party aggregator. This would provide a layer of objectivity.

Data will only be collected if a ticket is issued, or “if a stop results in a warrant checks, searches of persons, removal of any person or property from the vehicle, or use of handcuffs, use of force, or restraint.”

The resolution still allows for a verbal warning to be issued.

The amended resolution also includes a clause concerning officer-worn body cam footage, which the original ordinance did not include.

“This will likely be narrowed, because we wouldn’t be publishing all body camera footage. We’d have to narrow to specific incidents. So, that’s an amendment we might make on a second reading,” said Whaley.

It received four yes votes. Two members voted against it. Another two abstained.

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