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Shelby County Commission approves CLERC for civilian oversight of law enforcement

In the wake of the death of Tyre Nichols –  along with a series of deaths in county lockup –  Shelby County Commissioners approved an ordinance 9-4 to create a civilian oversight board to investigate claims of misconduct against Shelby County law enforcement.

Largely a Shelby County counterpart to the Memphis’ recently passed Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC), the Civilian Law Enforcement Review Committee (CLERC) will also address alleged abuses within the county’s jail system. 

“This will be history. This will be the first time Shelby County will have a similar ordinance,” said Commissioner Erika Sugarmon. “This not only will address misconduct by law enforcement – sheriff’s deputies – but jailers as well.

“It’s to correct and call attention to what’s going on. Not only outside of the jail system, but within the confines of 201 Poplar,” Sugarmon said.

In addition to leading a force of deputies, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner’s responsibilities include the Shelby County Jail, along with the Shelby County Juvenile Detention Center. The lockup holds individuals arrested throughout the county, including those apprehended by the Memphis Police Department.

Over the years, several inmate deaths have occurred at the facility. The most recent was Ramon McGhee, 42, who was found unresponsive on January 10. He died on Friday, January 12.

An investigation is ongoing.

“When detainees are taken into our custody, we have a responsibility to take care of them until they have an opportunity to go to trial. These are pre-trial individuals. Typically, these are individuals that are dealing with mental health issues, like this individual was,” said Sugarmon.

The death joins a list that includes the death of inmate Deon Byrd, who was stabbed in an inmate holding area for Division 1 Criminal Court on October 26. It too is being investigated. A lawsuit against Bonner, Shelby County Jailer Kirk Fields and the county has been filed by members of the family.

Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris will nominate members of the seven-person committee.  Commission confirmation will follow. CLERC members will be assisted in fulfilling their duties by an executive director. 

Complaints will fall in one of eight categories. They include force, arrest, entry, search, harassment, other procedures, service and property. 

The ordinance “mimics” state law in defining the authority of the committee members. 

In May, Tennessee Governor. Bill Lee signed a law to disband civilian watchdog panels that depend on taxpayer dollars to operate. Although oversight boards are still permitted, they are limited to seven members to be appointed by a mayor. Critics fear it will hinder independent investigations.

After its passage, the Mayor of Memphis and the city council scrambled to fill the gap. With its 13-member Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB) board abolished at the end of October, city council members passed a state law-friendly ordinance in December to establish the Police Advisory and Review Committee (PARC). It was sponsored by the former Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland. 

“As soon as it changed, the city council immediately changed their CLERB to reflect the change in the state law. It was passed and executed by Mayor Strickland on December 5, 2023,” said Sugarmon.

Taking office on January 1, new mayor of Memphis Paul Young hasn’t nominated members to PARC yet.

While its passage comes at a time of strained relations between citizens and law enforcement – particularly within the county’s Black community – it also comes at a time of record crime. Stagnant recruiting numbers for law enforcement have exacerbated the problem.

“We’re already short law enforcement officers and jailers. If they mess up, they should get in trouble. Absolutely. But with the situation we’re in right now, and the crime problem…,” said Commissioner Amber Mills.

She also referenced the state’s reluctance to support citizen oversight of law enforcement, along with impending budgetary obligations the county’s on the hook for, like the upcoming $750 million rebuild of the Regional One hospital campus.

“I don’t know how that works for Shelby County,” said Mills.

CLERC still faces a few hurdles before getting down to business. State law requires a two-thirds majority vote of the Commission during two separate meetings. The ordinance will take effect afterwards.

Voting in favor were Miska Clay Bibbs, Charlie Caswell, Edmund Ford, Jr., Michael Whaley, Britney Thornton, Shante Avant, Henri E. Brooks, Mickell Lowery and Sugarmon.

Commissioners Mick Wright, David Bradford, Brandon Morrison and Mills voted against the ordinance.

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