The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Caucus Director Lee Powell's Experience with Memphis Police Brutality; & Need for Reforms

Posted on January 31, 2023 at 02:29 PM

“Caucus Director Lee Powell’s Experience with Memphis Police Brutality & the Needs for Comprehensive Program of Reforms”

Jan. 31, 2023

We need a comprehensive program of police reforms in the aftermath of the tragic murder of Tyre Nichols in Memphis. As a former victim of Memphis police violence myself, I can speak from experience on this painful issue.

This is in-depth and intensive. If you are interested, glance over it when you have some time.

Memphis police brutalize African Americans more than any other demographic group, so we need to emphasize the need for intensive screening and eliminating racial prejudice and violent tendencies in all police officer candidates. However, the fundamental problem is the culture of violence among far too many police officers, and that challenge involves all of us.

The five officers who murdered the African American victim are all African Americans, although at least one of the officers at the scene–possibly more–is white.

Memphis is a majority black city with a majority black police department. It is certainly plausible that black officers may believe that they can avoid punishment for beating an African Amerian or other minority as opposed to a white man. But this is not exclusively a racial problem.

The problem is broader than just racial prejudice. While many police officers are responsible, hard-working citizens, there are too many who enjoy inflicting violence upon people, particularly those they dislike for reasons of ignorance and prejudice.

I. BRIEF SUMMARY OF CAUCUS DIRECTOR’S EXPERIENCE WITH MEMPHIS POLICE BRUTALITY

I happen to be white, but years ago I was shoved around, thrown in jail on false charges even though I had committed absolutely no offense, thrown without a shirt on into a freezing, isolated cell they infamously called the “cooler” in the Memphis jail, kept there all night and denied the right to make a phone call.

I was respectful and compliant to the police throughout my experience, but it made no difference. They had made up their mind to brutalize me from the beginning.

**Luckily, I hired a good lawyer, the charges were dismissed; because of my connections at Rhodes College in Memphis and elsewhere; my lawyer lambasted the Memphis Police Department both to the judge and later to the Mayor of Memphis, who agreed with us and was clearly embarrassed.

Did our objections from influential people in Memphis make any difference? I don’t think it changed anything at all. There have been many cases like mine or worse over the decades since then.

For those interested there is a detailed report on my experience below in this message.

I can just hear the redneck, violent officers who shoved me around and threw me in the cooler laughing about how they may have had the Mayor verbally slap them on the wrist and say “naughty, naughty,” on the other hand they made one of those uppity long-haired college students at the elite academic institution spend the night in jail.

Realistically speaking, most of the low to middle income police officers did not have the intellectual or financial resources to get admitted to a Rhodes College–along with Tulane and Vanderbilt generally considered the top three undergraduate institutions in our region. From the obnoxious comments they made about Rhodes people being “too big for their britches” and a “bunch of over-educated sissies,” here was the officers’ chance to act out their mixture of contempt and envy on the prestigious intellectual institution.

I had many positive interactions with police officers as a reporter earlier in my career, so I am not “anti-police”: Before anyone jumps to the incorrect conclusion that I am generally “anti-police,” I should emphasize that I was a newspaper reporter in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier in my career and my beat was covering the police and the courts.

My experience with those officers was that they were largely dedicated, thoughtful people who just wanted to help the community and my overall view of them was strongly positive. Their quality apparently declined by the time of the Charlottesville demonstrations a few years back, but that’s another story.

These incidents have persisted over the decades, sadly.

II. MINIMAL LIST OF FUNDAMENTAL REFORMS BADLY NEEDED AT FEDERAL, STATE AND LOCAL LEVELS

1) Intensive screening of police officer candidates for any record of violence or any tendencies toward racial bias to prevent them from becoming officers in the first place.

2) Pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which was blocked in the Senate in 2021, to that body’s great discredit. This Act would limit qualified immunity policies that protect officers accused of misconduct, create a national registry of officers who have been given disciplinary actions, limit no-knock warrants, ban chokeholds and other measures

Ongoing training for both candidates and officers already on the force on policies regarding restraints on the use of force. In general, all other alternatives should be exhausted before resorting to deadly force. Alternatives to arrest should be enhanced in cases involving people with mental illnesses.

3) Oversight and accountability need to be strengthened, so that officers who engage in violence and misconduct receive appropriate punishment and serve as a deterrent to others’ engaging in such behavior.

The District Attorney, police chief and other authorities are to be commended for quickly firing the officers involved and charging them with second-degree murder and other serious offenses, as well as firing emergency medical technicians who failed to take any meaningful action to treat Nichols.

5) Special units like the Scorpion should be disbanded.* It is constructive that Scorpion was terminated. If there are any legitimate reasons for special units for “high-crime areas,” the officers need to be experienced veterans, regularly rotated, and subjected to strict accountability.

6) Enhancing communications between police and each local community: If police and local community leaders could hold public meetings on a regular basis where officers could explain their policies and challenges and citizens could voice their concerns, this could de-escalate the level of tension between law enforcement and the community.

7) Police have a responsibility to intervene against their colleagues’ abusive actions–this must be done by the force of public opinion and condemnation as well as the passage of laws: Tennessee state law already required officers to intervene to stop abuse and report excessive force by colleagues. Clearly laws cannot solve all these problems in every case–the officers ignored the law in this case–but we can do our best to hold them accountable and enforce legal punishments. Public condemnation of these actions, strict discipline and legal enforcement and punishment need to be toughened.

8) Increase funding to the police for equipment, training, screening, and salaries: Officers are going to perform better if they have good equipment, received high-level screening and training, and receive good salaries as an incentive to recruit high quality officers and keep good morale for veterans.

“De-fund the police” is the most ludicrous suggestion imaginable: The notion that we can get better conduct by sending out officers who are underpaid and have sub-par equipment will only make matters worse and will lead to a deterioration in police conduct.

No, you can’t solve the problem by “throwing money at it,” but you can’t solve it without resources for training, screening, equipment, and good salaries. Providing them with inadequate pay is a recipe for having more low-quality, disgruntled officers.

These suggestions are minimal requirements that should be passed expeditiously and there are certainly other actions and reforms that need to be taken. But we need to start now and not let the naysayers who excuse all police conduct stand in the way.

The many good police officers are likely the people who are most disturbed by the minority of bad actors in law enforcement. Reform needs to be passed by the community at large, however, and the police associations and lobbyists should not be allowed a veto over any of these reforms.

Memphis police abuse data: Black men and women were clearly targeted for rough treatment in 2019-2021. They suffered 86% of all recorded uses of guns, batons, pepper spray, physical beatings and other violence in 2021, with the total that year nearly doubling to 1,700 cases.

III. IN-DEPTH ACCOUNT OF CAUCUS DIRECTOR LEE POWELL’S EXPERIENCE WITH MEMPHIS POLICE BRUTALITY

My experience as a white, affluent (if long-haired at the time) college student with police brutality: When I was in college at Rhodes College in Memphis (then Southwestern at Memphis) I once was subjected to police violence. I was studying for exams early on a Saturday night when they closed the library, and I just wanted to get another chapter finished up for the exams the next week.

A college dorm on a Saturday night, even right before finals, is not a place conducive to higher learning, so I drove across the street very close to the campus to a well-lit, prosperous, very low-crime area with a large street light over it, with the lights on inside my car, and thought I would just do a little more reading. This was about 8 0’clock at night, and I wasn’t planning to be there long.

Well, I had been there a few minutes when three white police officers pulled up. They accosted me and were loud, belligerent and insulting from the start, even though I was trying to be respectful and compliant. They concocted all manner of verbal and psychological abuse like “You ain’t gonna be no successful professional.” “You ain’t ever gonna amount to nothin,’” and worse.

I had fairly long hair at the time, and while many Memphis police officers then and today are fine, many other Memphis police included a good many people who did not have much education and regarded long-haired college students from an elite academic institution with a mixture of contempt and envy.

Realistically speaking, very few people in their families had the intellect or finances to get admitted there. I knew of the police prejudice against people like me of that era and was determined to not do anything that would give them a legitimate cause to give me any problems.

I had done nothing wrong, was of course sober as a judge and had not consumed one drop of alcohol. I immediately said that I was just under pressure with exams coming up, and while I was not hurting anyone or anything by being there, I saw that I needed to go back to the dorm. That was the only time I ever did that, and all they needed to do was to warn me not to do that and told me to get back the few feet it would take to be on campus, and that would have been the end of it. I was not breaking any laws–except for perhaps a parking ticket—and I’m not even sure there was even a parking problem.

But they wanted to take this opportunity to unjustly throw in jail and bash the long-haired college kid and make a lot of derisive comments like “You’re never going to amount to anything,”etc. I said I just wanted to go back to my dorm.

Then they started shoving me around. I did not strike them in any way, of course. I played college basketball for Rhodes (full disclosure–the team I played on was awful) and was in good shape and managed to avoid getting any injuries from the physical abuse.

One of them thought it would be hilarious to trick me into thinking that they were administering an alcohol breath test and had me breathe into the back end of a radar gun. He turned it around and turned it on so that it was flashing like it does when speeding was being ticketed, and said to me “Look, this shows you are heavily inebriated.” They laughed uproariously.

They refused to give me a breath test because they knew I was sober. They dishonestly charged me with public drunkenness and after I stated that there was no need to take me to jail, one arrogantly shouted “Oh you’re going to jail, so be quiet.”

The experience at the jail was even worse. I was thrown into a large cell with 25 or so others, most of whom were very intoxicated.

Police ridiculing of constitutional rights–referring to my “constipational rights”:

I repeatedly called for my right to make a phone call. They ignored the call, and one of the officers contemptuously dismissed my request saying, “You want to call for your constipational rights.”

After I kept requesting my right to a call, they got even more angry, came and jerked me out of the cell, roughly shoved me down the hall to an isolated cell they called “the cooler.” I had to stand without a shirt on in a very cold cell for what seemed a long time. My guess is it was 45 minutes or so.

Then they came and put me back into the larger cell. I had to stay there all night with the rowdy drunks yelling and singing (they weren’t very good singers­čśá!) I was not allowed to make my phone call until the next morning about 7 a.m. to one of my professors. He came and got me out of jail and reported that “there were no signs of drunkenness on him.”

I got out and other than the pushing and shoving, the time spent in the freezing room, the psychological and verbal abuse, I came out of it without any physical injuries. I was not going to let this go without a strong objection—and luckily for me I course could hire a good attorney and in fact one of my classmates at the college was the son of one of the best if not the best lawyer in Memphis.

The lawyer showed up with me at traffic court, and the judge—who of course was much lower in the legal world’s status than the famous lawyer—was surprised to see him there. He also looked surprised when I pled “not guilty” and said I had not had anything to drink. The judge dismissed the charges so I was at least legally exonerated.

The police claimed that they had not allowed me to make a phone call because I was so inebriated I could not talk. This was a lie worthy of fascists. Again, I had not had a drop to drink and they knew it.

The judge did not believe the police allegations. After hearing from me and my lawyer, he immediately found me not guilty.

*The lawyer was not finished, however. He said, “It’s a legal principle that once you’ve won your case, sit down and stop talking.” But in this case, that was not enough, and he proceeded to ream out the Memphis police department for failing to train their officers and prevent this kind of abuse from happening. *

The judge was in agreement, although other than dismissing the charges there was not a lot he could do to reform the corrupt culture of the Memphis police department.

My lawyer and I were still not satisfied. The mayor of Memphis of course knew the famous lawyer and wanted to stay on good terms with one of the city’s most influential citizens. My father, James O. Powell, happened to be the editor of the largest newspaper in the state of Arkansas just across the river from Memphis and he was there as well. The Mayor would not want to offend a student from the city’s most prestigious academic institution, of course.

So we went to the Mayor’s office, and my lawyer reamed out the Memphis police in detail to His Honor. I reiterated that “The Memphis police department is prejudiced against long-haired college students.” The Mayor agreed and was clearly embarrassed.

My treatment was brutal, but I shudder to think what would have happened to me on the street, and even moreso in the jail, if I had been an African American instead of an affluent white person.

Did having my case dismissed, with the judge agreeing with my lawyer, and the Mayor listening to his lambasting of the Memphis cops, make any difference to their culture? I don’t think it made any difference at all. There have been cases like mine or worse ever since.

I can just hear those redneck police officers bragging about how they made one of those long-haired college boys from the fancy college spend the night in jail, even if they were reamed out to the judge and the mayor.

It was a thoroughly disgusting experience.

Blaming the victim: What offends me most about what some people have said about this incident is that they blame me. Okay, I felt the pressure of studying at an elite school and was annoyed by the library being closed early, and the dorm on a Saturday night was no place to study. Even studying in a well-lit area with the light on in the car, in a low-crime prosperous neighborhood a few feet off the campus early one night—this still was not the way to study. That occurred to me and I was planning to leave in a few more minutes.

The cops should have just said move along and I would have agreed with them and would have immediately complied–I was planning to leave very soon anyway.

Getting arrested on an utterly false charge of public intoxication and then being pushed around, abused, thrown in jail all night, and subjected to very cold temperatures in the jail’s “cooler” was outrageous.

These incidents keep recurring. Many Mwmphia polixw officers still feel free to abuse anyone they don’t like.

It’s long overdue to act now with police reform. Thank you. Lee Riley Powell, Executive Director, Delta Grassroots Caucus (202) 360-6347