MEMPHIS, Tenn. – A pile of stuffed animals marks the spot where 15-year-old Justin Thompson fell, shot to death by an off-duty Memphis police officer on a school night in a working-class neighborhood.
The Sept. 24 shooting is still under investigation, but the question of whether officer Terrance Shaw used excessive force makes the case one more example for critics who say there is a years-long culture of misconduct in the police department of Tennessee’s largest city.
This year, at least 23 Memphis officers and civilian personnel have been charged with crimes including drunken driving, drug dealing and sex trafficking. Going back to 2004, dozens of officers in the 2,400-officer force have been charged with corruption.
Thompson’s death was a tipping point for Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr. in recently ordering a review of the department by an outside group – as Miami, Los Angeles and other major cities with troubled departments have done in the past.
Wharton says the department’s arrests are causing the public to lose faith in its police. Among the most shocking of the recent arrests was an officer charged with sex trafficking, accused of making a deal while on duty to take prostitutes to work at a party in Mississippi.
That officer was investigated and charged by the FBI’s Tarnished Badge Task Force. It also investigated an officer charged with computer fraud and another charged with drug possession. Other officers have been charged this year with theft of property, felony shoplifting, domestic violence and DWI.
The call for an external investigation has put Police Director Toney Armstrong on the defensive. He says he’s not resigning despite heavy public scrutiny.
Members of the community have held rallies decrying police corruption, saying they no longer trust the men and women charged with protecting them.