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.
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.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Congress, in many cities, states and counties, say that they want to reform police practices. But any reforms will need to go through police unions. Michael Williams heads the Memphis police union and joins us now.
Thanks very much for being with us, Mr. Williams.
MICHAEL WILLIAMS: Good morning. How are you?
SIMON: Fine. Thank you, sir.
WILLIAMS: Good. Good.
SIMON: I want to ask you about - Commercial Appeal newspaper there points out that the 2019 city budget called for $260 million in police services but just a little over $4 million to housing. And they suggested that maybe giving more people shelter might be a wiser way to spend tax dollars and even bring down the crime rate. How do you feel about that math?
WILLIAMS: It is. It is. I agree wholeheartedly. I don't necessarily agree with defunding police, but, you know, this is something I've been working on not just as a union president but as a citizen, as a native Memphian. We have started to spend too much money on economic development. We've diverted too much money of core tax dollars into pilots. When you live in the second-most violent city in the nation, which is Memphis, aside from what happened to Mr. Floyd - which was a heinous act - and there is money, it's just a matter of prioritization. We are not a bank. We are a city that the citizens pay their hard-earned tax dollars, which I am one of, and we deserve to have better amenities, better core services and not necessarily spend all of our money to make the rich richer.
SIMON: Well, let me ask you something that might be a little tougher than just money, if I might put it that way.
WILLIAMS: OK, sure.
SIMON: 2018, there were reports that maybe the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation should be the responsible party for investigating officer-related shootings - officer-involved shootings in Shelby County, which is Memphis. You advised your members not to submit to interviews and instead give statements to the union, right?
WILLIAMS: Well, 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. Everybody's entitled to their Fifth Amendment rights. Just because I'm a police officer don'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 what we call - God, I can't even think of a name now.
SIMON: Well, that's all right. That gives me a chance to follow up anyway. Recognizing that they're citizens and every U.S. citizen is entitled to...
WILLIAMS: That is correct.
SIMON: ...The right...
WILLIAMS: Even criminals.
SIMON: ...Not to self-incriminate - yes, exactly. But what about the idea that, of course, police officers are also public servants who, by the way, are entrusted with sometimes lethal force and that they ought to submit themselves for interviews to responsible parties as soon as possible in the public interest.
WILLIAMS: Sure. And that's not a problem. But also, you know, just as anyone - this country - I love this country - and what this country is built on, No. 1, everybody's innocent until proven guilty. No. 2, everybody is entitled to representation. You know, you try to paint - not necessarily you, but there are individuals that try to paint unions as this organization. We don't set policy. So when they talk about reform and all of that, we don't - the city of Memphis, the state Tennessee legislation, they set policy. We don't. We just abide by the policies that they enforce. Now, are we...
SIMON: Let me...
WILLIAMS: ...Just like any other organization that has the ability to say that we like this or don't like that? But that still doesn't determine what policies are going to be set. So, you know, I think that there is a bigger agenda at play when it comes to unions across this country. Everybody's represented.
SIMON: Yeah, but let me ask you, and we just got half a minute left.
SIMON: What about the 48-hour waiting period before an officer accused of misconduct can be interviewed about it? Would you be willing to give that up in collective bargaining?
WILLIAMS: No, because just like with anything, everybody's 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, you know, 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.
SIMON: Michael Williams of the Memphis police union, thanks so much for being with us.
WILLIAMS: You're so welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.