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Statement from Police Director Michael W. Rallings
Statement from Director Rallings
Posted on 08/14/2018

Statement from Memphis Police Director Michael W. Rallings

In recent days, you may have seen news coverage or read the articles we posted on this website about the ACLU of Tennessee, Inc. vs. the City of Memphis lawsuit.

Our goal has been to be transparent about the issues involved in the case, which involves the interpretation of and effect of a 40-year-old consent decree. In fact, the only reason many of the articles were printed in the first place is because we voluntarily unsealed documents and posted them on the City website for the world to see.

I can’t speak at length about this case as it’s still in court. But I do feel compelled to explain a few things and talk about the path forward.

  • The terms “surveillance” and “spying” are being used in the media, but that’s erroneous. (In fact, those terms have never been used in the Court’s order.) Those words conjure up images of officers in unmarked vans on the street corner listening to tapped phone conversations. This does not accurately reflect MPD’s activities, or its motivation, regarding the monitoring of events which are the subject of this lawsuit.

  • Officers look at social media posts to help us gauge the size and intensity of demonstrations so that we can properly provide for public safety. This is also an effective tool in stopping criminal activity such as sexual predators, domestic violence, stalking, and threats. We also use other technology, such as body cameras, SkyCops, and security cameras in our law enforcement efforts to keep Memphians safe.

  • The reality is that the monitoring of social media posts and the usage of modern technology such as body cameras are considered to be best practices in policing nationwide. In fact, various media reports show that many other cities, such as Boston, Charlotte, Denver, Little Rock, San Jose, and Seattle, use social media monitoring. And the after-action recommendations following the Charlottesville riots last year said that monitoring social media was crucial to protecting public safety. The report cited inadequate social media monitoring as a contributing factor to law enforcement’s lack of preparation and response. See pages 167-168 of the report

  • But, because of actions taken in the 1970s, we are different than those other cities. In 1978, a federal court placed MPD under a consent decree to not engage in “political intelligence,” as defined by the consent decree. (Here's a link to the decree.) We feel like we have been complying with the consent decree as it would apply to today’s world.

I urge you to think of the real-world application of this. Let’s say that Group A posts on social media that they’ll gather at Court Square at a certain time and place to demonstrate. And then let’s say that Group B sees that post, then shares it with its members to encourage them to gather to counter-demonstrate. That’s a potential flashpoint, and as we’ve seen in our country in recent years, events like these can cause mayhem and loss of life.

We need to be able to read these posts and use them as part of our decisions about how we deploy resources, since we are responsible for the safety of all involved. Though MPD has been monitoring posts prior to my tenure as director, I have experienced its value.

These tools enabled me to ensure that the 2016 bridge protest was peaceful and without injury. Without these tools, I believe that night would have ended very differently.

We will, however, follow the judge’s order. So, if the judge says we can’t do that, we won’t. It’s my job to find a way to balance public safety with complying with the manner in which the Court interprets the consent decree.

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