Here's the long version of a Q&A with new Memphis Police director Toney Armstrong that ran in this week's Memphis Flyer.
He may be best known for extracting a confession from convicted murderer Jessie Dotson in 2008’s Lester Street murder case on A&E’s The First 48. But new Memphis Police director Toney Armstrong has accomplished plenty more outside the reality show’s spotlight.
The Memphis native began his career in the U.S. Army, but he joined the Memphis Police Department (MPD) in 1989 a few years after his honorable discharge. Armstrong made his way through the ranks working undercover and leading in the robbery bureau, the organized crime unit, uniform patrol, missing persons, CrimeStoppers, and the homicide unit. On April 15th, Armstrong was sworn in to lead the department following former director Larry Godwin’s retirement.
The child of a single mother from inner city Memphis, Armstrong says he’ll make community policing his number one focus, allowing technology-driven policing to take on a supporting, rather than starring, role. — Bianca Phillips
You’ve stated that you’re a proponent of community policing, but how is that different from the way the MPD currently operates?
Right now, a lot of what the department does is technology-based. We rely on technology to tell us where to deploy personnel and to tell us what kind of crimes are going on in certain areas. But it’s my position that technology is a tool, and it shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all. There should be some human interaction.
I don’t feel that it puts us in the best light with communities that every time they see us in their community, we’re affecting an arrest.
Does this mean you’ll bring back the inactive COACT community policing units?
I’m in the process now of revamping the COACT units. We’ll probably rework them with a different mission. We do have COACT units, but honestly speaking, they have not been used in a capacity of being community-oriented.
What are some of your other top priorities?
The list is quite long, and I’ve only been here for a week. So obviously, I’ll be evaluating a lot of units and personnel. But as time goes on and those evaluations are complete, I’ll make changes as I see fit.
Will there be big changes?
I’ll be tweaking things in some areas and making big changes in others, but I can’t be specific right now. I can’t sit here and say we’re going to continue in the direction we’re going. I’m a different director than Director Godwin was, so the focus will always be to provide citizens with the best service we can. But how we do that is different from director to director. My focus will be on community policing.
There are some things that we’ve done that Director Godwin initiated that will continue, but I’m not fixing to sit here and say, this unit will be turned upside down and we’re turning the department upside down in reference to personnel. But I will honestly tell you there are some units that I’m looking at and some things that we do that I’m looking at changing.
You’re inheriting a department that’s managed to lower crime significantly. Does that give you more room to tweak and perfect the department’s structure?
The numbers say the crime rate is down, but we have to work on the perception. If you go into some neighborhoods, they’ll tell us we’re not realizing the reduction that we say. They don’t feel their relationship with the police department is that great. We’ve been successful in some areas and in others, we need to do a better job.
Godwin said one of his biggest regrets was not securing a separate police headquarters for the MPD. Will you try to accomplish that?
Right now, I don’t want to say it’s not a priority. Right now, my biggest priority is to maintain the officers that we have. It’s no secret that these are tough economic times. It’s no secret that we’re being asked to make cuts to our budgets. It’s so secret that over 90 percent of our budget is personnel. When you ask us to make cuts, that’s where those cuts come from.
My biggest challenge right now is to make sure we don’t lose any officers to those budget cuts, as well as losing key personnel. We have quite a bit of a support staff. A police headquarters would be great, but I can’t honestly say that I could envision the city earmarking millions of dollars for us to move in that direction when we’re talking about laying personnel off.
What are you most excited about?
I’m most excited about just getting out and meeting people, continuing in the path, and the momentum we’ve had as far as the reduction in crime. But I’m excited for these officers. For the most part, you’ve got a young guy like myself who comes in, and you have officers out there who can see that anything is possible. I’m excited for the community.
I come from a single parent home. My mother raised me in the inner city, and I’m excited to be a source of inspiration for those mothers out there who are having some of the same struggles that my mother had. They can see that there can be positive results if they do what they need to do, even though it’s a challenge everyday. But if you show that child the love they need and the discipline they need, there can be positive results.
What are you least excited about?
Budget cuts are challenging. If you talk to division directors all over the city, it’s tough when you have to make choices as far as people’s careers. I’m least excited about trying to get a budget in place during these tough economic times.
If the Mississippi River floods Tom Lee Park, it won't be as early as this weekend, according to Diane Hampton, Memphis in May's executive vice president.
"The river is anticipated to be below Tom Lee Park this weekend," Hampton said. "And the weather is predicted to be great."
There's no chance of rain on Friday, a 30 percent chance on Saturday, and a 40 percent chance on Sunday. The annual music festival is traditionally plagued by bad weather. This year's line-up includes MGMT, Ke$ha, Ludacris, Cage the Elephant, the Stone Temple Pilots, among other acts.
But the threat of river flooding following this week's heavy rain storms may impact the Memphis In May World Championship Barbecue Festival, scheduled for May 12th-14th.
"No one knows what the river will do, but we're working with the Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service," Hampton said.
She said Memphis In May is exploring all options for what to do if the barbecue festival is flooded out.
File this one under "Oops!" On Tuesday, Memphis Police officers accidentally arrested one of their own. Officer Edrick Braxton was mistakenly arrested on a warrant for aggravated burglary when his fingerprints were lifted from the scene of a crime.
But turns out Braxton's prints were there because he made the scene when Antavious Christopher called police on March 17th regarding a burglary on Mickey Drive. Christopher had seen someone inside his neighbor's home and called for help. Braxton made the scene and arrested two suspects.
But other officers dusting for prints lifted Braxton's from a lawn mower, and an arrest warrant was issued. Braxton was arrested Tuesday and charged with aggravated burglary. He was later released and the warrant was recalled. A spokesperson for the MPD said Braxton's prints were on the lawn mower because he touched the item while working the crime scene.
Health website WebMD just released it's annual list of Asthma Capitals for 2011, and Memphis came in at number three.
The Bluff City falls behind Richmond, Virginia (#1) and Knoxville, Tennessee (#2) as a major city with one of the highest rates of asthma-inducing health factors. Here's what WebMD had to say about Memphis:
This Mississippi river town has many asthma sufferers singing the blues. Memphis moves up to No. 3 this year. Weak public smoking restrictions, poor air quality, and high poverty rates continue to be problematic. While asthma doesn’t discriminate based on socio-economic status, people living in poverty often have less access to the health care and medications needed to manage their condition.
Besides Memphis and Knoxville, two other Tennessee cities made the top 10 list. Chattanooga came in fourth place, and Nashville was ranked at number 10. Portland, Oregon was deemed the best city for helping asthmatics breathe easier, thanks to its better-than-average air quality and low pollen score.
Memphis' annual Bike-to-Work Day is still over a month away, but the Center City Commission is hosting an informational Q&A session for potential riders on Wednesday, April 20th.
A panel of six avid cyclists will be on hand to answer questions like, "How do I keep my helmet from messing up my hair?", "How do I choose a route?", and "What do you do about sweat?". They'll also share tips and tricks for getting around town on two wheels.
The session begins at 5:30 p.m. at Mud Island River Park in the museum theater. The official Bike-to-Work Day event is scheduled for May 20th. Click here to register.
New Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong was sworn in this morning in a ceremony in the Memphis City Council Chambers at City Hall.
Armstrong, a 22-year-veteran of the MPD, promised to focus on strengthening the relationship between police officers and community members, while continuing the technology-driven policing methods instituted by outgoing director Larry Godwin.
"Toney doesn’t have to deal with what I had to deal with. We weren’t just dealing with crime going up. We had all these other issues to deal with. We had personnel issues. We had folks over here that were civilians and making as much [money] as the chief. We had folks that we didn’t even know what they did. We had promotional issues," Godwin told the Flyer in an exit interview last month. "He doesn’t have any of that. He has a crime plan that’s the best in the country. All he has to do is keep doing what he’s doing."
Armstrong joined the MPD in 1989, after serving three years as an Army Field Artillery Specialist. He was first assigned to the West Precinct (now known as Union Station), and in 1991, he began working undercover. Later, Armstrong was moved into the role of investigator in the Organized Crime Unit and then as a sergeant in the robbery bureau.
He's perhaps best known for his role as supervisor of the homicide unit on A&E's The First 48. In that role, Armstrong worked on the infamous Lester Street Murder case and eventually led the unit to an 87 percent solve rate, the highest its ever seen. In 2008, Armstrong was promoted to the rank of commander of the homicide unit. From there, he went on to the role of colonel of downtown's uniform patrol, deputy chief of uniform patrol, and deputy director. He was named to the top cop role in March, shortly after Godwin announced his retirement.
"I think [Toney's] positioned to sort of go the next step," said Dr. Richard Janikowski, associate professor in the University of Memphis Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice. "The [former] sheriff, Mark [Luttrell], once said, when the house is on fire, that’s what you’ve got to concentrate on, putting the fire out. Then you can start looking at the electrical wiring."
This week’s cover story recounts organizational flaws and teacher resignations at Omni Prep Academy’s lower school in Raleigh Frayser. As a charter school, Omni Prep was meant to be an alternative to failing public schools, and the founders promised parents a “technology-rich environment” for their students. Here is a commercial for Omni Prep Academy, touting the school’s “challenging academic curriculum” and “iPads and laptops for students.” One of the teachers presented is Felice Ling, who was later dismissed because of the school’s financial insolvency. The website listed, OPA-NP.org, is not in service.
If you’re wondering what happened to this dream school, Booker says Omni Prep had to make adjustments when they did not meet their enrollment numbers. “You pull back on investments in technology, you pare back a little on the music program, you don’t fill some positions, and along the way you have to cut some positions,” he says.
Still many parents and teachers feel they were lied to. Nicole Gates, one of the parents of Omni Prep students, says only one of her children’s teachers had an iPad in the classroom. Courtney Eskew, a former teacher at Omni Prep Academy, says neither she nor the any of the other teachers in the lower school had iPads — although she adds that the administrators did.
“While laptops and iPads are wonderful resources, and they are still a very strong part of our vision and our plan, we know that students don’t have to have those things to learn,” said lower school Principal Murrah at a recent parents’ meeting.
All the same, when dollars are being taken away from Memphis City Schools, every broken promise suggests that education officials should take another look.
Part of one apartment building at Cleaborn Homes faced a wrecking ball today as the kick-off for a scheduled demolition of the downtown projects.
Only half of this building was left standing on St. Paul Avenue this afternoon as a small crew focused on tearing down the fence around the boarded-up, dilapidated brick apartments.
Families living in the 50-plus-year-old public housing development were relocated last year, after the Memphis Housing Authority provided residents with housing vouchers or found other HOPE VI communities for them.
Once the 460 Cleaborn units are demolished, the land will be redeveloped with 400 new units. Of those, 140 will be public housing, but the rest will be a mix of low-income or market-rate units. Nearby Foote Homes is next on the city's list for demolition in an effort to rid the city of large-scale public housing projects. The Cleaborn project is funded by a $22 million HOPE VI grant.
Memphis and Paris, France will make a new business relationship official today with the signing of a letter of intent in the Peabody Hotel's Forest Room at 12:30 p.m.
Representatives from the Memphis/Shelby County Airport Authority and Aerotropolis Memphis will join officials from Hubstart Paris Alliance, Aeroports de Paris, and Aerotropolis Europe to sign a letter creating a mutually beneficial relationship in which Memphis and the Grand Roissy are both promoted as business development destinations. The Memphis International Airport and the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris will serve as hubs to supply and support potential businesses.
The signing ceremony kicks off the World Airport Cities Conference happening in Memphis April 11th-13th.
Memphis Police officer Austin McDaniel, 25, was arrested yesterday afternoon after he allegedly sent pornographic images of himself to a 15-year-old female.
McDaniel was charged with solicitation and sexual exploitation of a minor by electronic means. He has been relieved of duty pending the outcome of an investigation. McDaniel, who was hired by the MPD in June 2010, was assigned to the Old Allen precinct.
First Memphis managed to elbow its way into ECOtality North America's six-state electric vehicle project and now it's on the verge of getting 69 charging stations.
After initially favoring Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Nashville for the demonstration project that seeks to accelerate use of electric cars, Memphis signed on to the initiative in February. The project is funded by a $99.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and also includes Arizona, California, Oregon, Texas, and Washington.
Today, members of the Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, and Memphis planning departments briefed their mayors about where they think the charging stations should be.
These are the proposed locations:
- Bartlett Boulevard/Malco West
- Kirby-Whitten/Hollywood Cinema
- Bartlett Performing Arts Center/Recreation Center
- Saint Francis Bartlett Hospital/Malco/Hotel area
- Malco Wolfchase
- Town Square
- Collierville Middle School
- Collierville United Methodist Church
- Carrier Air Conditioning
- Schilling Office Park
- FedEx Technology Center
- Courtyard Marriott
- Central Church
- Baptist Memorial Hospital
- Collierville Town Hall
- Collierville Malco
- First Baptist Church
- Collierville Community Center
- Collierville High School
- W. C. Johnson Park
- Germantown Performing Arts Centre
- Municipal Center
- Germantown Library
- Pickering Center
- Methodist Hospital
- Baptist Rehabilitation
- Forest Hill/Poplar Shopping
- Carrefour Center
- Germantown/Poplar Shopping
- Germantown Village Square
- Germantown Collection
- Exeter Village
- Saddle Creek/Saddle Creek South
- Mississippi Greenbelt Park
- Peabody Place/Hotel
- National Civil Rights Museum
- Rhodes College
- Union at Cooper/Overton Square
- Christian Brothers University
- Tiger Lane
- Oak Court Mall/Laurelwood
- Botanic Garden/Audubon Park
- Racquet Club of Memphis
- Malco Paradiso
- Shelby Farms Park
- Wolfchase Galleria Mall
- FedEx Headquarters
- Hickory Ridge Mall
- Baptist Hospital
- Saint Francis Hospital
- Memphis International Airport
- Soulsville/Stax Museum
- St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
- Memphis Zoo/Brooks Museum of Art
- Pink Palace Museum
- Dixon Gallery and Gardens
- Theatre Memphis
- Lichterman Nature Center
- Medical Center/UT
- Agricenter International
- MLGW (six locations)
- Millington Library
- Frayser Library
- Raleigh Library
- Randolph Library
- Benjamin L. Hooks Library
- East Shelby Library
- Whitehaven Library
- Bert Ferguson Library
In addition to these public charging stations, anyone who buys the new Nissan LEAF electric car or the Chevrolet Volt hybrid gets a free home charger.
After months of delays, it's almost certain that Memphis Fire Services will be able to get the eight alternative response vehicles (ARVs) it first proposed buying in January.
Thomas Malone, a district field service representative for the International Fire Fighters Association Local 1784, reversed the union's position against the vehicles during a city council committee meeting Tuesday, citing a "spirit of cooperation."
"I think [this issue] has been beat up enough and extended enough," he said. "We have bigger fish to fry right now."
Some of those fish include budget contraints and a continuing controversy over city pension funding.
Now that the fire department and union have agreed to go ahead with the ARV purchase, the proposal will go before the full council for a single vote today.
"It appears it's going to pass," said councilman Jim Strickland, chair of the Public Safety & Homeland Security Committee.
The ARVs, which respond to medical emergencies only, cost $62,500 apiece and could save the fire department anywhere from $4,000 to $17,000 a year in fuel, maintenance and other costs.
However, the vehicles can't transport victims to the hospital or fight fires, facts union members have clung to since the ARV proposal first came up on Jan. 4th. They would have preferred to buy full-fledged trucks that are more versatile in emergencies, but those same trucks can cost $500,000 or more.
Councilman Kemp Conrad, who sympathized with safety and other concerns, reminded everyone of the city's fiscal crisis and said ARVs ultimately are better than nothing.
"Let's not let perfect get in the way of good," he said. "I think this is a way we can keep our folks in the field doing what they're doing."
However, Strickland said he's still not convinced the ARVs represent a significant cost savings. He had requested an analysis of capital and operating savings from the fire department, but never got them.
"If things go well [with the ARVs], you'd want eight more?" he asked fire department director Alvin Benson.
"If funding is available," Benson answered.
If the ARV proposal passes today, the union's next step might be introducing a resolution to buy better apparatus.
"This can come back up at a later time when we're financially more sound," Malone said.
In what will likely be his last big news conference, Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin announced today that Operation Street Sweep XXXIV netted 106 arrests after a months-long undercover investigation into illegal narcotics sales.
Fifty people were indicted for more than 160 offenses, including manufacture, delivery, and sale of a controlled substance to wit: crack cocaine, powder cocaine, ecstasy, Xanax, the pain killer Propoxyphene, and methamphetamine. Five of those indicted were known gang members from the Gangster Disciples and the Traveling Vice Lords.
Twenty-seven of the 50 people indicted were apprehended during the round-up yesterday, and 42 individuals were arrested on additional charges. Thirty-seven people were arrested for prostitution-related offenses.
The investigation, which ran from April 28th, 2010 to January 19th, 2011, also revealed two homes determined to be public nuisances. Petitions have been filed with the court to close down 698 Alabama and 1142 Margaret.
Godwin had these words to say about his last big operation before moving on to his position with the state Department of Safety and Homeland Security: "You always hate that something is your last, but I feel good for the citizens."