This story was originally published by the Institute for Public Service Reporting on August 4, 2020.
When a Memphis man was reported for molesting his 4-year-old daughter, relatives gave police an inside edge — a video recording — to help prove an often-difficult claim to substantiate.
Yet, Memphis Police Department supervisors who reviewed the slow-moving investigation discovered some troubling police work: Sex crimes detective Mary Webb failed to tag the recording as evidence or turn it over to the property room, causing the District Attorney’s Office to decline prosecution.
Soon, other complaints poured in: Webb allegedly neglected to interview witnesses, failed to arrest suspects, didn’t test a rape kit and left a range of paperwork unfinished, leading to a six-day suspension in January 2017 for mishandling six child abuse cases.
“They know I didn’t do that,” said the now-retired Webb, 52, countering she was set up for failure as an investigator with little training, poor supervision, an unmanageable caseload —even outright sabotage by supervisors.
Hers is one of several recent controversies at MPD’s Sex Crimes Bureau, where a supervisor was demoted in 2017 for passing sensitive details to the family of a rape suspect and where decisions to not test rape kits led to two costly lawsuits by victims who believe their cases were ignored.
MPD brass is addressing concerns in Sex Crimes, in part with additional officers and better training, but commanders said through a spokeswoman they have no plans of tweaking the bid system, a labor policy that’s helped numbers of officers like Webb transition from patrol to detectives ranks. It’s seen by critics as a root cause of failures in the bureau because it often favors seniority over ability when filling detective positions.
“Since I first went up there as a supervisor that’s always been a topic of discussion,” said former Lt. Wilton Cleveland, who worked for nine years as a supervisor in the Sex Crimes Bureau before retiring in 2016.
“Some of these guys should not be investigators.”
The bid system is spelled out in the Memphis Police Association’s labor union agreement and is designed to promote fairness in promotions and protect officers from arbitrary treatment in work assignments.
“City-wide seniority will prevail in bidding for job openings,” reads the opening line of the agreement’s bid system provisions, which requires vacancies to be posted and allows officers to then bid for them.
Former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis cited the bid system as a factor hindering investigations in a 2014 report commissioned by then-Mayor AC Wharton to explore the causes and origins of the rape kit backlog.
“The bid system presents challenges in obtaining officers that are trained and interested in sex crimes,” Coleman-Davis wrote. “Promotion is generally the important factor which results in turnover in staffing the squad, sometimes with officers that are not necessarily interested in sex crimes.”
MPD officials declined a sit-down interview, but said in an email issued in response to written questions, “The bid system does not hinder any bureau within the department from attracting qualified investigators.”
The email pointed to several Sex Crimes enhancements:
- Seniority alone won’t make an officer a sex crimes detective. “Applicants must have one year in rank as a Sergeant assigned to Investigative Services in an investigative capacity. If there is no Sergeant for the job that meets the one-year requirement, one of the three most senior Sergeants will be selected to fill the bid,’’ the statement said. Cleveland said that appears to be a step up from past practices.
- Caseloads may be down. While officers like retired sex crimes supervisor Cody Wilkerson said critical staffing shortages at times left officers with as many as a hundred open cases at a time, the email said the average caseload as of January was “about five’’ cases per month or 60 a year. Nationally recognized sex crimes investigative consultant Joanne Archambault says there is no “industry standard,’’ yet studies have found typical caseloads range from 54 to 96 a year.
- The email also said, “Additional training has been established to ensure continual learning for case investigators,’’ though it didn’t quantify that training.
- The bureau appears to have increased its staff on its adult crimes squad. MPD said in its release the bureau has a complement of 16 officers on its adult crimes squad. “That’s a huge improvement,’’ Cleveland said, though he later questioned whether the number of officers is indeed that large now. Both he and Wilkerson said the adult squad formerly had two teams of four detectives with a lieutenant over each – a total of 10 officers.
In a follow-up email, MPD spokeswoman Karen Rudolph clarified that while the adult squad has a complement of 16 officers, 12 are investigators. The unit also has three civilians and two lieutenants, Rudolph said. It had ten investigators in 2016 and a range of 10 to 13 in “recent years,” she said.
Despite the MPD’s support of the bid system, its provisions don’t apply to the Organized Crime Unit, which specializes in drug and gang investigations. OCU investigators are filled by appointment. Cleveland contends OCU is able to attract better detectives because of it.
MPD’s Internal Affairs investigators are also exempt from the bid system.
Memphis Police Association President Mike Williams said OCU’s exemption stems from the unit’s need for flexibility to meet its specialized investigative mission.
“They may take somebody right out of the police academy that nobody knows and put them in OCU because they’re working on deep cover,” Williams said.
Yet consultant Archambault said detective units investigating rape often receive fewer resources and considerations than the “sacred cows” — gang units, homicide squads and internal affairs – which tend to get “the cream of the crop’’ in their ranks.
“You don’t promote people and put them into Internal affairs based on seniority,” said Archambault, a retired San Diego police sergeant and executive director of End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit agency that provides sexual assault investigation training and consultation.
“You’ve got to have the right people working there.”
Struggles aside, Shelby County Crime Victims & Rape Crisis Center Director Sandy Bromley said her office enjoys improved relations with MPD’s Sex Crimes Bureau.
“One of the things that I find about this community is that narratives stick. And unfortunately, we don’t have … the best narrative,’’ she said. “And I would love to start shifting that narrative because I think it’s in future victim’s best interests if we start talking about the good things that are happening.’’
One MPD reform involves focusing on victims — providing services and ensuring their cases are thoroughly investigated, Bromley said.
Rather than drive victims in a patrol car to a police station for questioning, detectives now conduct many interviews in a comfortable room in the crisis center at 1060 Madison, she said, though a review of police affidavits indicates a range of interviews were conducted recently at the sex crimes offices. Nonetheless, Bromley said detectives are dedicated to seeking justice for victims.
“I think what’s different is that you have a group of people who are truly committed to putting victims first,’’ she said.