With more than 120 civilian oversight bodies across the U.S., civilian law enforcement review is not uncommon in many major cities. These committees are in place to give citizens an avenue to address police misconduct.
Until recently, Memphis did not operate a civilian board that investigated complaints about police officers. The Civilian Law Enforcement Review Board, or CLERB, formerly operated in Memphis; however, it had no real power and was disbanded illegally in 2011.
At the November meeting, Memphis City Council members voted to reinstate CLERB and give it more power to subpoena officers and documents through a liaison.
Paul Garner, the organizing coordinator for Memphis United, said people have a better chance to be heard with independent oversight.
“CLERB can also look for patterns of misconduct and recommend policy recommendations to address systematic issues within the Memphis Police Department,” Garner said.
Before the recent vote, the Memphis City Council was designating a liaison and allocating a budget for CLERB, but no real cases were being investigated. However, the phone contact for CLERB went to a random official in the legal department of the city, and the CLERB homepage was not a functional website.
The process of filing a complaint involved either having to go directly to a MPD precinct or through Internal Affairs. Now citizens can submit complaints directly to CLERB.
Elokin CaPece, the operations manager at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center and CLERB activist, said she has many people coming to her with unacceptable accounts of police behavior toward LGBTQ people.
One example she gave was of two black trans women who were stopped by police outside of a bar late one night. They were asked to get in the squad car, and the police officer drove them to the Hernando Desoto Bridge and dropped them off in the middle.
CaPece said that police misconduct is not a hypothetical situation for members of the LGBTQ community.
“When you talk to trans folks in Memphis, especially black trans-women, they inevitably have stories that are inappropriate interactions between them and the police,” CaPece said.
CLERB is another method to help ensure that the MPD would be held accountable and allow transparent oversight during any investigations that involve police misconduct.
“We know that biases and prejudices based on the perceived sexual orientation or gender identity of an individual often inform the way in which law enforcement interacts with a civilian,” Garner said.
CaPece said that members of her community want as many safeguards as possible against police misconduct.
Jesse Greer, a gay Memphian and supporter of CLERB, said CLERB is a safety net that helps ensure that cases are heard and questioned based on all of the findings brought before them, not just one side.
“Now that CLERB has been reinstated, it helps to ensure that discrimination against our community is not just pushed to the back burner by the MPD,” Greer said.
The second ordinance for CLERB, drafted by Memphis United, was submitted to city council in March. However, the vote to revive CLERB and give it subpoena power was delayed five times by Memphis City Council members until the November city council meeting.
As advocates of CLERB, Garner and CaPece said reviving CLERB will not magically end police misconduct against the LGBTQ community, but it is a good first step towards criminal justice reform.
“CLERB is just a piece of a larger puzzle that has to include ongoing training, ongoing transparency, that MPD and Shelby County Sherriff’s office are actually watching their staff and making sure that when things happen, because they are going to happen, that they are dealt with appropriately,” CaPece said.