Toney Armstrong is quick to note that the Memphis Police Department has made tremendous progress with technology, most specifically the Real Times Crime Center and the Blue Crush initiative. Toney Armstrong is quick to note that the Memphis Police Department has made tremendous progress with technology, most specifically the Real Times Crime Center and the Blue Crush initiative.
Good as it is, however, he says there is no substitute for personal relationships.
“I think we need to do a better job as far as community policing, one on one contact, more police to citizen contact versus computer to citizen contact or some type of electronic device to citizen contact,” said Armstrong, Mayor A C Wharton’s nominee for director of police services.
|Deputy Director Toney Armstrong (right) is Mayor A C Wharton’s choice to succeed retiring Police Director Larry Godwin (left). Armstrong, 44, is a 22-year veteran, who developed a national profile as part “The First 48” – a homicide documentary featured on A&E. (Photo by Earl Stanback)|
In a weekend interview with the Tri-State Defender, Armstrong discussed a range of topics, including goals, major challenges and tight budgets. He said he intends to go through a 90-day phase in which he names his command staff, gets in synch with members and manages the transition. Soon thereafter he will begin to seek input. And while he will come to the table with ideas, Armstrong said his administration will be inclusive.
Armstrong, a native Memphian, describes himself as “just a regular down home guy.”
“I know the pulse of the city. I’m approachable. If I tell you something, you can believe,” he said.
In his first interview as Police Director nominee, Armstrong displayed a blend of humility and confidence. He said he is not stepping into his new role with the sense that he needs to reinvent the wheel or look over his shoulder at Godwin’s accomplishments.
“Anybody that knows me knows that I don’t lack confidence. I wouldn’t be where I am lacking confidence,” said Armstrong.
“The mayor and I talked. He was very candid with me about his expectations. I was very candid with him. My mom had a saying when I was growing up that the best thing two folks can have is an understanding. I understand what is expected of me.”
MPD, said Armstrong, has to know what works in what neighborhood. And while computer and electronic contact with residents works in some places, it’s not universal, he said.
“In some inner city homes that is not exactly the relationship that they have to have with the police department as far as turning on a computer to figure out what is happening,” said Armstrong, noting the need for “more of a personal relationship and that will be the direction that we go.”
That is going to require some new training, he said.
“Our officers have to know exactly how to do this. They have been trained on how to be police officers, but not specifically on how to be community-oriented police officers.”
Armstrong knows that the economy and budget restraints will be a factor.
“Actually, there is always a challenge, especially in these tough economic times when you are dealing with taxpayers’ dollars. Every year you go to Council and you can just about – before you even get there – bet that there are going to be cuts. The Council is going to ask you to make additional cuts even after you have made your perceived cuts.”
The challenge in tight budget times is to provide the same amount of services without losing officers.
“We don’t want to lay anybody off. That affects citizens,” he said.
With budget constraints and his vision of community policing in mind, Armstrong said he and his transition team would look at the use of officers to make sure “we are getting the most bang for our bucks.”
The MPD image
Armstrong acknowledges that MPD’s immediate past includes officers who have become entangled in illegal activity.
“At the end of the day, citizens have to see how do we respond when we get that information. You are going to have those (officers) who go to work every day and go above and beyond what they are supposed to do. And you are going to have those that stray,” he said.
“As a whole I think we act quickly. I think we act appropriately, even it means a black eye, so to speak, or throws a negative (image) on us. We want to remove those officers because at the end of the day we have the massive responsibility of public safety.”
Police offers, he said, should be held to a higher standard than regular citizens.
“Since I have been in administration, I have been a disciplinarian, a no-nonsense guy. I will continue that. Sad to say, these things will happen. I can’t promise you that a year or two or three years from now that down the line there will be no other incident,” Armstrong said.
“I can promise you that when these things are brought to my attention they will be dealt with and dealt with swiftly and we will do all we can to restore public confidence in us.”
‘You came from Dixie Homes’
Armstrong is an only child and his mother initially was not keen on the idea of “her only son out playing cops and robbers.”
He was working with someone who decided to take the entrance exam and was talked into it. He thought he might do five years, return to school to get a degree and do something else.
“Five years into it, I was having too much fun to walk away from it,” he said. Promotions followed and he found himself amid a career that he could not let go of.
Armstrong grew up in Midtown. His grandmother and an aunt lived in Dixie Homes.
“That (Dixie Homes) was me, man. I spent the summers there; I spent the weekends there when I got out of school. Everybody that I went to school with was there; I went to Tech High School. It was a neighborhood, community that I absolutely loved,” he said.
He stays in contact with some of the guys from the neighborhood. They let him know that they are watching him and that they are proud of what he is doing. They remind him that he is “one of us. You came from Dixie homes.”
After graduating from the Police Academy, Armstrong was attached to the West Precinct and assigned to patrol LeMoyne Gardens and Dixie Homes. Policing the neighborhood he grew up in had advantages and disadvantages.
“I can remember being behind a guy in a stolen car. The guy got ready to get out of the stolen care and run. He turned and looked at me and said, ‘Man, that’s Toney. I live right next door to his cousin,’” recalled.
“The advantage was knowing the neighborhood. Everybody knew me, I knew everybody. The disadvantage was that not only did they know me, they knew my family too.”
Children and police
Armstrong notes that police officers are among the most recognizable people in communities. He seeks officers who are mentors and move about with a sense of ownership in the community.
“You would be surprised how many kids actually look up to police officers but they don’t publicly say so because it is not the cool thing to do. We’ve got to find ways to make that the cool thing to do,” he said.
“Our kids are afraid to succeed because we live in a nation now where it is acceptable not to strive for excellence. We live in an era when sports, entertainers, are our heroes.”
Success, he said, too often is not judged by inner accomplishments. “And that is something that has to be taught,” he said. “I think our kids need to know exactly what is success.”
Weaving in the ‘Blue Crush’ initiative, which relies upon statistics to drive law enforcement, Armstrong said it would be continued, noting a “monumental reduction in crime.”
“With that said, I am not going to say that it is going to be the end all, be all. There will be some tweaking. There will be some things we do differently.”
While America tends to be a statistic-driven nation, said Armstrong, there is need to get to the point where there is not a need to “arrest our kids.”
“I am excited. I am really looking forward to this,” said Armstrong.
Soon after word of Godwin’s retirement became public, many familiar with Armstrong began to talk openly about the possibility of him moving into the top spot, with some adding their prayers, he said with obvious gratitude.
“We’ve got a win-win for both myself and the citizens of Memphis.”
City schools and its own police force
Armstrong said he had not personally talked with officials about the issue of a City Schools’ police force, adding that he thinks MPD does an outstanding job policing schools inside and out.
While he would be willing to listen to concerns, Armstrong said accountability – how and who would be responsible for reporting crimes – would be a key factor in this conversation.
Abandoned property and crime
Armstrong said there is a correlation between abandoned houses and crime, with a tendency for such houses to be used for drugs, sexual assaults and other criminal activity.
“It is something that we pay attention to, something that will always be a concern to us. Sad to say, over the years in some of these particular neighborhoods there is more than it should be,” said Armstrong.
It is, he said, another reason why it is important “to have police officers on the ground in these communities.”
Relationships with other police forces
“As a courtesy, we always like to reach out to each other when we are doing things in their jurisdictions,” said Armstrong, noting that sometimes maintaining the integrity of an investigation means not always being privy to all of the information.
“However, we always encourage each other to reach out when there is enforcement of any type so that we can provide the necessary officers to go into these neighborhoods with them. Sometimes, there is a breakdown in communications. However, I’ve got to say that, for the most part, we’ve got an excellent relationship with the other departments,” he said.
“Sad to say, we’ve had an incident that happened, but we are taking steps to make sure the lines of communication remain open and we learn from our mistakes.”
(Tri-State Defender President / Publisher Bernal E. Smith II contributed to this story.)