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Measures restricting the Sheriff’s Office get second-reading consideration

Three proposed ordinances written to check over-policing by Shelby County Sheriff’s Office deputies moved ahead in their second readings during Monday’s (Sept. 11) Shelby County Board of Commissioners meeting.

Only one of the items – a proposed ordinance to collect data on traffic stops – netted the seven votes needed to pass its third and final reading.

Commission rules allow for an item to advance even if it falls short of a majority in its first or second reading.

All three proposed measures were sponsored by Commissioner Britney Thornton.

On an 8-3-1 vote, commissioners embrace a proposed ordinance to create a database to compile information on interactions between officers and motorists during stops. It will also gather data on use-of-force incidents and complaints.

Voting in favor were Commissioners Henri Brooks, Edmund Ford Jr., Erika Sugarmon, Mickell Lowery, Shante Avant, Chairwoman Miska Clay-Bibbs, Vice Chair Charlie Caswell, and Thornton.

Voting against the item were Commissioner Amber Mills, Mick Wright and Brandon Morrison. Commissioner Mark Bradford abstained.

A similar proposed ordinance – that asks for data on specialized units to be gathered and reported – wasn’t quite as popular. It was scaled down in committee from an earlier version that sought to ban the units. It was reviewed by Shelby County Attorney Marcy Ingram.

“As we continue to unpack specialized units, there seems to be questionable oversight and definitely a growing public interest to know more about what is actually happening within the specialized units and what is the impact to our community,” said Thornton.

“Racial discrimination and how there’s misconduct, harassment, abuse reported in these interactions with specialized units is documented.”

Morrison complained that Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. didn’t have the opportunity to speak on the issues. She made the same complaint concerning her constituents.

Calling public safety “our number one issue,” she also said law enforcement needs to know “we stand behind them.”

Thornton countered, “The issues that we talk about, from time to time, disproportionately impact certain districts.…If your constituency does not reflect any of those demographics, I would just ask you minimize your voice in this conversation.

“At the end of the day, they don’t fear the police and they aren’t overly targeted by the police.”

Prior to the vote, Sheriff’s Office Chief Inspector Wink Downen said the office had “no problem with data collection.”

However, the current computer system cannot handle the needed software. There is also a lack of expertise within the office regarding gathering the information.

“It’s going to take a little more time than what I’m seeing with this ordinance … six months,” Downen confided.

It passed on a 5-4-3 vote.

In favor of the proposed ordinance were Thornton, Sugarmon, Brooks, Caswell, and Clay-Bibbs. Mills, Wright, Bradford, and Morrison voted against it. Abstaining were Ford, Lowery, and Avant.

The proposed ordinance to ban pretextual stops, meanwhile, has an even steeper climb after gaining only three votes.

Similar in language to an ordinance recently passed by the Memphis City Council, other than its nonbinding status, the resolution would end stops based on non-life-threatening offenses, such as an improperly displayed tag, expired registration, or broken taillight.

These stops often draw accusations of racism because, statistically, minorities are stopped at a higher rate while also resulting in fines. Critics of such stops complained the stops were particularly punitive to low-income motorists.

“Being poor is expensive … Policing poverty is an issue in Shelby County,” said Thornton.

One member pondered if community safety would be compromised by eliminating the option for officers. For example, pretextual stops do result in arrests for outstanding warrants, from time to time.

“I hear the fact that we need to address these deep-seated issues. Yet, at the same time, I’m still looking at how the dots are connected … I see this daily,” said Caswell.

The proposed ordinance failed on a 3-4-5 vote.

In favor were Thornton, Sugarmon and Clay-Bibbs. Mills, Wright, Bradford, and Morrison voted against the ordinance. Abstaining were Brooks, Ford, Lowery, Caswell, and Avant.

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