Monday, July 11, 2016

Memphis calls for calm following violent week

Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association. (Courtesy photo)
Tears flow like water. But they don’t cool off hot tempers that erupted following the fatal police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. And they continue to flow after a sniper gunned down five police officers in Dallas and wounded seven others, including two civilians, in retaliation.
The loss of life to violent aggression is egregious. Police departments around the country are now in defensive mode and bracing for the unexpected. In Memphis, the men and women in blue are in just as much a heightened state of mind.
“It’s so unfortunate that individuals that had nothing to do with what happened in Baton Rouge, La., or in Minnesota, had to lose their life as they were protecting individuals who were conducting a peaceful march,” said Michael Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association.
The tension between protesters and the police officers sworn to protect them is escalating around the country. Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is calling for calm, using Tweeter to make his case: “Let us all come together, in Memphis and beyond, and have a peaceful and thoughtful dialogue on the issues that confront us.
“Our community stands on how we treat each other, how we treat our police officers, and how we make strides to move forward – together – in healing,” said Strickland, who is expected to name a successor to replace Tony Armstrong, who left at the end of January to take a job as director of security at St. Jude.
Strickland and interim police director Michael Rawllings, who placed his name in contention for the top job, held a press conference on July 8 at city hall to respond to the fatal police shootings and the fallen police officers.
“We cannot survive if we do not work together,” said Rawllings, expressing anger and frustration. He said police officers are not the enemy. “We are your ally.” He also said the actions of a few should not stop “hardworking” and “dedicated” officers from doing their jobs to protect and serve the community.
 “You can’t hold all individuals, or black people, responsible for what happened, because that individual acted alone,” said Williams, a 17-year veteran of the Memphis Police Department, eight of them as the MPA president. “Violence is not the answer.”
Police officers aren’t immune to violence. It’s a hazardous job for the city’s more than 2,000 commissioned officers. Williams recalled four recent incidents where officers were either injured or encountered individuals who were very hostile.
“We still have to maintain some semblance of order in all the midst of the chaos,” he said. “Right now you have officers on edge. You have the community on edge. Everybody is on edge. It affects the stability of our community.”
Williams warns officers not to be hyper-vigilant while trying to be safe and over-react instead. “You have to find that balance,” he said, “whereas you’re still able to do your job within the constraints of the authority given to you. But don’t overstep those bounds. That could propel this city into chaos.”
Two officers didn’t help diffuse tensions when they were relieved of duty with pay for posting a “disturbing” image on social media recently of what appears to be a white hand pointing a gun at a fleeing black man. An investigation is ongoing.
“We absolutely take this seriously,” Strickland said.
Anger is exploding across the country and the ripple is felt in Memphis. But the city has its own problems to contend with. The homicide rate is soaring: 118 since Jan. 1.
“I’m a citizen…I’m a police officer…and I live in a community where homicides are happening that I’m concerned about,” said Williams, calling attention to one that happened recently about 1,000 yards from his front porch.

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