Armstrong's Scary Season 

Nobody promised Toney Armstrong a rose garden, but they didn't exactly promose him a permanent Halloween experience on his watch, either.

Part of the Memphis police director's problem is that, when he ascended to the director's job in 2011, he happened to succeed a popular predecessor. Larry Godwin, besides being effective at both law enforcement and publicizing his achievements, was a smooth enough operator to have co-existed for years with former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, an imperious chief executive notorious for changing directors as often as most men change their socks.

No sooner had Armstrong become Memphis' top cop than he was confronted with an organized rebellion among a group of publicly anonymous subordinates whom he dubbed "monsters" and who promptly adopted the name themselves as a matter of pride. It was, in any case, a jolt to citizens of Memphis, scant weeks after Godwin had moved to Nashville as an aide to public safety commissioner Bill Gibbons, to be reading leaked accounts of diatribes from Armstrong and threats to "cut the head off" any officer rash enough to challenge his authority.

Such draconian stuff might have been all well and good if it had led to some degree of harmony and cohesiveness, but events since have indicated that such is not the case, either within the department, where several recent instances of personal misconduct by police officers have surfaced, or outside, on the streets, where the recent fatal shooting of a 15-year-old by an officer has enraged residents of the dead youth's community.

Armstrong's tenure is now somewhat conspicuously under the watchful eye of Memphis mayor A C Wharton who, since taking office in 2009, has indicated a willingness to make necessary changes in troublesome city agencies. Wharton recently ordered a sweeping review of police procedures and made it clear that personnel changes are likely. Whether all of this goes far enough to threaten Armstrong's tenure is uncertain, but the director is taking no chances. He has launched what amounts to a P.R. offensive to defend his own good name and that of his department.

Appearing recently before a luncheon of the Memphis Rotary Club, Armstrong said he was taking stern measures to impose discipline on scofflaws within his own ranks — a group he reckons to number no more than 1 percent of the police force at large — and promised to weed out notorious transgressors. But he and his defenders, like Mike Williams, president of the Memphis Police Association, have expressed concern that Wharton and other city officials may be overdoing their watchdog role and hindering the department in its efforts to control a crime problem that, as Armstrong told the Rotarians, is close to intractable because of the unusual degree of recidivism among lawbreakers — some of which, he hinted none too subtly, is due to laxity in the court system.

Armstrong began his police career as an undercover officer among drug traffickers — about as tough an assignment as we can imagine — and rose to his present position of command through a variety of other demanding tasks, including head of homicide investigation.

He may not possess the public finesse of his predecessor, but he's still got a fair chance to survive and succeed. We hope he can.



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