It’s a hard time to be a cop

Officials say pandemic and national anti-police narrative hurt morale, inhibit recruitment

By , Daily Memphian Updated: September 15, 2020 10:22 AM CT | Published: August 31, 2020 4:00 AM CT

Editor’s note: The caption to the photograph above of Keedran Franklin has been changed to clarify what is depicted in the photograph.

It is an image that was burned into America’s collective conscience after the video went viral: a white Minneapolis police officer pressing his knee on George Floyd’s neck.

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

And, in another way, for the last three months.

“What happened to George Floyd should not have happened,” Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. said. “Officers were standing around and could hear this man begging for his life.”

George Floyd died on May 25, 2020.

Before images of that day could begin to fade, a new viral video began to circulate on Aug. 23 showing a police officer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shooting a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back seven times as he tried to enter the driver’s side of an SUV, with three of his young children in the backseat.

The Jacob Blake shooting — the family has said that he is paralyzed from the waist down — has further amplified the divide between law enforcement and the Black community in America.

And Jacob Blake’s name is only the latest, a name now mentioned in the same breath as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

Already, instances of excessive police force had ignited a racial/social justice movement. Also set in motion: an opportunity for change and reform.

“We’ve got to have these tough conversations,” said Bonner, the first Black man elected Shelby County sheriff, and who serves on Gov. Bill Lee’s law enforcement task force. “We’re trying to reach a happy medium, if you will.”

<strong>Floyd Bonner</strong>

Floyd Bonner

On the other side of this equation, the continued tension over policing in America creates new challenges for law enforcement as it seeks to keep the peace day-to-day. And amid a pandemic, no less.

Locally and across the nation, this is even having an impact on law enforcement as a career choice.

“There’s a whole narrative shift in the desire to be a cop,” said Memphis Police Deputy Director Mike Ryall. “Recruitment has become a little difficult.”

So, yes, the divide is real. But the divide starts, Bonner says, long before police are called to a scene.

Bonner is grateful to be a member of the governor’s task force, hopeful he can be a part of effecting positive change.

Neither is he naïve.

“The best police reform,” he said, “can’t erase racism.”

A dual challenge

Simultaneously, law enforcement continues to be confronted by a foe that is invisible and literally viral: COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus has killed more than 370 people in Shelby County; a corrections officer and a Memphis police officer are among its victims.

First Memphis police officer dies of COVID-19 complications

The virus also has changed the way police departments conduct business. Not only to “protect and serve” the public, but to protect the officers sworn to carry out those orders.

In fact, the level of respect and concern for COVID-19 rivals the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

“We suit up every day and go out there with this unknown giant that’s always present, but never seen,” Ryall said. “PPE is part of our uniform now.”

Although the challenges of the pandemic are independent of relations between law enforcement and citizens they protect, they have had something of a multiplier effect here and across the country.

On Sept. 11, it will have been exactly 19 years since terrorist attacks rocked America. What followed 9/11 was a level of community and national unity that is almost unfathomable in the current political and social climate.

“The feeling across Memphis and across our nation was love for America, strong support not just for our military, but for law enforcement,” Ryall said.

And now?

“One extreme to the other,” Millington Police Chief Mark Dunbar said. “Everybody loving us to everybody kicking us.

“But I believe 99.9% of law enforcement is legit out there doing the right thing, in the job for the right reason. To help people.”

When a few weeks ago Black Lives Matters protesters came to Millington, it was a short-lived event. Dunbar says there were about “80 to 85” protesters and police met with them beforehand and provided an escort as they marched from the city’s civic center down Highway 51 and back again.

“Peaceful protests,” the chief said. “We shook hands. No problems.”

And no enduring images.

Behind the mask …

Even without a national conversation about police procedures, use of force, manpower, and defunding departments, the COVID-19 pandemic alone, Ryall says, presents a “huge” challenge.

Since the pandemic began, 96 commissioned Memphis police officers who tested positive have returned to work, Ryall says, and so have another 37 civilians. When Ryall spoke with The Daily Memphian, 24 commissioned officers were currently positive for COVID-19.

Bonner says the Sheriff’s Office has had more than 155 employees test positive. Upper command staff continues to meet via Zoom, but front-line deputies and officers have to answer calls.

“We have to deal with situations where you can’t social distance,” Bartlett Police Lt. Jeremy Springer said.

“Stay home if you’re sick,” Ryall added. “We’re pounding that to officers every day.”

Millington doesn’t handle the volume of calls that either Memphis officers or the Shelby County deputies do, but ...

“We’re extremely careful,” said Dunbar, who spent 34 years working for the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office before becoming Millington’s chief. “We screen people before we make the scene, unless it’s an emergency.

“If it’s something like a theft, we’ll ask, 'Have you been sick or had a fever?’ before we ever get to them. And we mask up. Even with a mask, you’re not sure it protects or not. But better safe than sorry.”

That said, any law enforcement agency is going to have a mix of ideas – the same as any other workplace.

“I’ve got people in my agency we call non-believers, think it’s a flu bug on steroids,” Bonner said. “And this thing’s killing people, man.”

It is also quite possibly hindering some criminal investigations.

Juvenile homicides on the rise in Memphis

“Think about this: When detectives interview suspects and victims, a lot of what they do is body language reading,” Bonner said. “When you can’t see their facial expressions that makes interviewing them more difficult, whether they’re a victim or a suspect.

“When you have one of those 'aha’ moments, you can’t see it because they’re wearing a mask.”

Not an easy 9-to-5

“On the best day in law enforcement an officer is under stress,” Memphis Deputy Director Ryall said. “It ramps up the stress even more when you put an officer in front of a protest group trying to protect property and lives.

“Especially when there’s a narrative toward police that increases stress.”

Ryall, Sheriff Bonner and Chief Dunbar all said that the effect of the national “anti-police” narrative can be seen in their officers who work the streets every day.

Even though the sentiment isn’t prevalent in Bartlett, Lt. Springer said seeing what other officers elsewhere are facing has been “disheartening.”

Initially, however, the pandemic did make the job a little easier. Fewer people out and about. Fewer calls to answer.

“Crime dropped when everything was locked down,” Springer said.

But, over time, crime was shown to have spiked in Memphis and Shelby County since the pandemic started. Statistics released in July showed that violent crime, including homicides and aggravated assaults, increased 9.7% in Memphis from January through June.

First half of 2020 sees spike in violent crime, decrease in property crimes

The stress across multiple fronts has been exhausting for the people wearing the uniforms.

“Those factors do affect morale because these are different times we’re living in,” Ryall said. “It’s a drain on you. And then our officers go home to their families and they’re concerned they might bring COVID home or that Mom or Dad will get injured (on the job) or killed.”

In 2019, according to FBI statistics, 89 officers in America were killed in the line of duty. Of those, 48 died as a result of “felonious acts” and 41 died in accidents.

Nationally, however, such concerns about the welfare of the men and women in law enforcement is not at the top of the conversation.

“I’ve been in this business 40 years,” Bonner said. “I’ve seen the pendulum swing both ways.”

Once upon a time, Bonner himself was a patrolman. Then he worked in narcotics. He knows what the job is and the truth in this statement: “A lot of times, officers only see people at their worst.”

But he also knows a routine car stop or a chance encounter with someone is an opportunity to change negative perceptions about police.

Recently, Bonner spoke to a new graduating class of deputies. Among his messages: Treat people the way you’d want your own family members to be treated.

Said the sheriff: “We have a great level of discretionary power.”

Eye in the sky

Memphis police have set up a new website:, as part of its “Reimagine Policing in Memphis” program. The key tenet, as posted on the site: “Trust between law enforcement and the people they protect and serve is essential in our city.”

Cameras, however, provide an avenue for the old maxim of trust but verify.

Shelby County Sheriff patrol cars have dash cameras and deputies wear body cams. Accusations of excessive force are reviewed, Bonner says, and any deputy demonstrating a pattern of aggressive behavior will have a sit-down aimed at uncovering possible underlying causes: “Is there anything going on with the job? Or in your personal life?”

Officers’ personnel records released in Banks shooting

On Sept. 17, 2017, Memphis police shot Martavious Banks in South Memphis as he ran from officers during a traffic stop. It ultimately spurred State Rep. G.A. Hardaway of Memphis to introduce legislation that would make it a felony offense for officers to in any way disable or fail to turn on their body cameras.

The day after the Banks shooting, Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings said the officer who fired shots did not have his body camera activated, and that two other officers involved in the incident had deactivated either their body cams or in-car cameras. The shooting sparked protests that lasted a week.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich did not seek charges against any of the officers involved. The officer who fired the shots resigned; three other officers were suspended. Banks was indicted on multiple charges, including unlawful possession of a weapon; police say he had reached for a weapon in his car.

Ultimately, Banks pleaded guilty to several charges and received two years of probation. He also filed a $10 million federal civil lawsuit against three of the officers and the City of Memphis.

Millington had body cams and dash cams several years ago, Dunbar says, but the equipment wore out and was not immediately replaced. That changes about Oct. 1, when he expects new equipment to be in service.

“It’s a two-way street,” he said. “It protects the officers and it protects the citizens as well.”

No do-overs

In a story produced by the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, and published last June in The Daily Memphian, activist James Macon lobbied for better oversight of police:

“There needs to be an outside force that is not police themselves to investigate these matters.”

Ryall says some of the very incidents that have resulted in protests in Memphis and across the nation also have had an effect on police — even if their presence at said protest was in an official capacity.

“Our officers were disgusted and brokenhearted about what happened in Minneapolis with George Floyd,” Ryall said.

He also praised Rallings for “building bridges” within the community and tamping down tense situations with protesters.

“We’ve been fortunate,” Ryall said. “What we’ve seen in other cities (with protests swirling out of control), we haven’t seen here.”

But as Bonner noted earlier, the best police reform can’t erase racism, and the recent incident in Kenosha, Wisconsin, so far looks like another case of systemic racism driving how police dealt with a Black man.

The story did not go unnoticed in the NBA’s “bubble” in Orlando, where the playoffs were paused as players boycotted games. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers was among those to speak out.

“The training has to change in the police force. The unions have to be taken down in the police force,” Rivers said. “My dad was a cop. I believe in good cops.

“We’re not trying to defund the police and take all their money away. We’re trying to get them to protect us just like they protect everybody else.”

Obviously, a part of policing is having to make snap decisions when the stakes may rise to the level of life and death.

In many cases, this amounts to a judgment call while under severe pressure with incomplete information.

And bullets are not email messages; they can’t just be recalled.

“Deadly force is only authorized if someone is using deadly force against you or someone else,” Bartlett’s Lt. Springer said.

“We know officers can get in some gray situations, where their life or someone else’s could be in danger,” Ryall said. “They’re trained to deescalate.

“We don’t teach chokeholds. We don’t teach neck restraint. We teach lockdown measures that are not lethal.”

In the George Floyd case, the officer who was kneeling on Floyd’s neck – Derek Chauvin – was charged with second-degree murder. Three other Minneapolis officers on the scene were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.

The passive aggression by those other officers — doing nothing — that allowed Chauvin to keep his knee pressed down on Floyd’s neck, has made “duty to intervene” a point of major emphasis.

“It’s common sense,” Dunbar said. “But we’ve put it in writing.”

A tough career choice

There is a scenario that worries every top cop: Namely, that today’s environment of intense scrutiny of police will lead to another kind of tragedy.

“That’s where you rely on your training. It has to be second nature,” Bonner said.

“You don’t want officers to second-guess themselves,” Dunbar said. “That will get them hurt.”

But neither can they err or the other side. That’s why use of excessive force by police is a national conversation/debate, and a national social movement with protests from Seattle to Memphis to New York.

So, Bonner says, echoing Dunbar, the training has to be supported by something else: “Good old-fashioned common sense. If it doesn’t feel right to you, chances are it might not be.”

It is against this backdrop that police departments are recruiting tomorrow’s officers. In Memphis, the City Council removed a ballot referendum that would have allowed voters to decide if officers could live outside Shelby County.

Currently, Memphis has 2,093 commissioned officers, Ryall says. Mayor Jim Strickland’s goal was to get to 2,300 by 2020.

A recent study of police staffing conducted by criminal justice consultants and retired University of Memphis professors Richard Janikowski and Phyllis Betts, commissioned by the Strickland administration, recommended a police force of 2,807.

Mayor vetoes, council overrides on residency question

Ryall says the residency requirement doesn’t take into account the reality of navigating the metro area: “An officer living in Southaven might be able to get to roll faster than one living in Cordova who has to get to roll call in Whitehaven.”

COVID-19 also has crimped recruiting, with Bonner saying typical recruiting venues for the sheriff’s office, such as job fairs, schools and churches, have not been utilized during the pandemic.

Nationally, the Police Education Research Foundation has said that police recruitment may be reaching “crisis” stage, reporting recruitment over a five-year period in Seattle down as much as 50%.

“Law enforcement’s been taking a beating for a couple of years,” Dunbar said, adding that the national media’s focus on cases where excessive force was used has skewed the reality that most officers have never fired their weapons. “All of a sudden, we’re considered the bad guy.”

In a story by the Reuters wire service, Stephanie Robinson, a rookie 23-year-old Black officer in Detroit, spoke to being part of the thin blue line when that image of George Floyd’s neck under a white policeman’s knee is all that some Black residents can see.

“They’re saying, 'Are you going to be Black or be a police?’” Robinson said. “And I say, 'I’m Black and I’m a police officer and I’m going to do both and do it the right way.’”

Said Bonner: “Our agency’s 50-50, black and white. And what we’ve been seeing now is we have many more African American applicants.

“White applicants are severely down. With what’s going on across the country and in the news, if you’re a white male or a white female, you may be asking yourself, 'Do I want to go into this profession?’”


Even young people who are choosing a law enforcement career may be coming into it with a new mindset.

Debra Dreisbach, a former FBI agent and a professor in the criminal justice department at Pennsylvania State University-Berks, and who advises police departments on hiring, told Reuters: “People who were set to go into policing – the diehards, if you will – are still pursuing that path, but there’s a lot of questioning going on right now.”

Especially as compared to what there once was.

Remembering what it was like when he was a rookie officer in Millington almost 40 years ago, Dunbar said: “You didn’t ask a lot of questions. You took a lot of notes and listened.”

Today, no matter the agency, many new recruits aren’t following that approach.

“For sure, it’s a different group of young people coming up and there’s nothing wrong with that,” Dunbar said. “They’re more inquisitive. But that’s good. That creates dialogue.”

And maybe dialogue will prove as valuable a tool as there is for policing. Be it amid a pandemic, a toxic election season, or an ongoing racial/social movement pushing for reform.

Or even just on a regular day as an officer when the potential for stress is high, the chance of having to make the right decision in a life-and-death situation ever-real.

Policing, after all, is street work.

Face-to-face, mask or no mask.

“The sheer nature of the job,” Bonner said. “It’s difficult not to have contact with people.”

Editor’s Note: The Daily Memphian is making our coronavirus coverage accessible to all readers — no subscription needed. Our journalists continue to work around the clock to provide you with the extensive coverage you need; if you can subscribe, please do


Floyd Bonner Jr. Mike Ryall Michael Rallings police Mark Dunbar COVID-19 George Floyd Jacob Blake Shelby County Sheriff's Office police recruitment Memphis Police
Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.


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