Memphis temporarily closes police force amid turmoil

Holly Fournier
The Detroit News

Memphis — The city’s police department has temporarily folded as it searches for its fourth police chief in 18 months, according to city officials.

“The police department currently is not open,” Deputy Clerk Jennifer Baranowski said Friday.

The decision was made at a Thursday evening city council meeting, Mayor Eric Schneider said. He requested the move after he and the council lost confidence in the department.

“We’ve gotten to the point where we’re not sure what’s going on over there,” Schneider said. “We didn’t have a second in command. We demoted our previous chief (last year) and we were kind of in turmoil, then our new chief died (in January).

“And since then, it’s not like it’s been out of control, but there were just a lot of unanswered questions and it just seemed prudent to suspend operations.”

The city’s six part-time officers are on paid administrative leave, Schneider said. They have been asked to turn in all department-issued equipment, including their weapons, radios, badges and identifications. The locks also have been changed at the department, he said.

“That way, we know what we have and we know what’s missing, if anything is missing,” Schneider said. “And when the new chief comes in here, he’ll have a good idea of where he’s at.”

Schneider said he hopes a new chief will be hired by late February from a pool of 11 applicants currently under review.

“Our police committee met a couple nights ago to go over the resumes that we have and to whittle down our list,” he said. “The Macomb County Sheriff’s Department is going to help.”

The move to close the police department comes after months of turmoil in the small, one-square-mile town straddling Macomb and St. Clair counties. It boasts 1,200 residents and a welcome sign billing it as “a pleasant place to live.”

Former Police Chief Jessica Beels was fired in 2014 and former Chief Scott Sheets was demoted last year. The city thought it had turned the corner with the hiring of Chief Kevin Sommers in August. The longtime Warren police officer impressed residents and city leaders as friendly and energetic.

“He seemed like he would fit like a glove,” Jim Gavin, a local winery owner told The Detroit News earlier this week. “He was just what we needed.”

But Sommers, 56, died Jan. 1 of a heart attack during emergency surgery for digestive problems.

Macomb and St. Clair county sheriff’s departments are taking over after the police department’s abrupt closure, Schneider said.

“The sheriff departments are aware and they’ve said they will help us,” he said. “They’ve already had patrol out here a little bit.”

Schneider also emphasized that 911 operations would not be affected by the department’s temporary closure.

“Our citizens are still safe,” he said. “911 hasn’t changed.”

Macomb and St. Clair county sheriff vehicles will respond to emergency dispatches, Schneider said. Residents also should head to their local sheriff substation to file reports or other paperwork.

Looking toward the future, Schneider said that forgoing a city police department in favor of sheriff department coverage is not a practical or desired option for Memphis. The $350,000 to $400,000 price tag to permanently hire a sheriff’s department far outweighs the city’s approximately $170,000 policing budget, he said.

“And we’ve always had a police department, our city charter says we need to have a police chief, and the residents deserve a police department,” Schneider said. “They deserve to have Memphis police officers around here to answer their questions, to talk to their kids.”

Despite the police department’s closure, the public school police liaison position will remain functional, Baranowski said.

“He is not affected,” she said of the officer. “He is still in place at the schools.”

Memphis Community Schools include an elementary school and a combined junior/senior high school, Baranowski said.

Schneider acknowledged the closure has upset some of his part-time officers after they learned about it from the mayor’s handwritten note posted to the police department’s front door.

“I basically just wrote that handwritten note until we could put something official up there,” said Schneider, adding a new notice has since been posted. “I understand that these people are pissed at me and I don’t blame them. But we’re just doing what we think is best.”

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