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Memphis Police Union Head Responds To Calls For Reform

Officers form a line in front of a police precinct May 27, during a protest over the death of George Floyd.
Adrian Sainz
Officers form a line in front of a police precinct May 27, during a protest over the death of George Floyd.

As police unions across the nation face growing demands from the public to change the way officers interact with civilians, and particularly people of color, the head of the Memphis, Tenn., police union says he agrees with the need for reform — in some cases.

Michael Williams, the president of the Memphis Police Association, tells NPR's Weekend Edition that he agrees "whole-heartedly" that the city's budget — which called for more than $260 million in police services and just $4.4 million for housing in 2019 — isn't equitably spread to address the needs of the people of Memphis.

"I don't necessarily agree with defunding police," Williams says. "You know, this is something I've been working on not just as a union president, but as a citizen. ... There is money. It's just a matter of prioritization."

As nationwide demonstrations over police violence continue, police unions — which are predominantly led by white men — are under heightened criticism from advocates who argue they have impeded past attempts at reform. Some union leaders say they are "not opposed" to changing parts of the system. But mayors, including Buffalo's Byron Brown and Chicago's Lori Lightfoot, have blamed unions for opposing changes. Lightfoot told NPR that police unions "are extraordinarily reluctant to embrace reforms."

While Williams expressed some support for changing the way the city allocates funds, he said he isn't in support of many of the demands activists are making including having the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation be the party responsible for investigating officer-involved shootings or encouraging officers to give interviews as soon as possible after they are accused of misconduct.

NPR's Scott Simon talked with Williams about the union's response to some of the changes activists are pushing for.

Interview Highlights

On police giving statements the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation about officer-involved shootings in Memphis

This is the deal. For some reason everybody thinks that because you're a police officer you want to separate me from being a citizen. Everyone is entitled to the Fifth Amendment rights. Just because I'm a police officer doesn't necessarily mean that I give up my constitutional rights. And we encourage officers to give statements, but if you're going to compel them to give statements, then they should be covered [by Fifth Amendment rights].

On the idea of requiring police officers to submit interviews as soon as possible if they are accused of misconduct

No. Because just like with anything, everybody is traumatized when they go through a traumatic situation. I'm a combat veteran and I definitely understand post-traumatic stress disorder. I also understand trauma. So therefore, when you start coming at an individual right after something happens, it's just like a citizen. A citizen has the ability to either talk or not talk. And that's something that everyone continuously tries to take away from police officers. And I just don't think that that's right.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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