MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Mike Rallings retired from his 31-year Memphis policing career Wednesday, leaving the force as the top cop, the police director responsible for fighting the city’s vexing crime problem with just over 2,000 officers.
Rallings spent five years, two months, three weeks and two days as Memphis police director.
But may be best remembered for what he did one night on the bridge when a Black Lives Matter protest stopped interstate traffic.
More than 1,000 protesters, angered by the killing of Black men by police officers shut down the I-40 bridge for nearly four hours on Sunday night, July 10, 2016.
“I could just imagine that somebody would lose patience and step on the gas and run over people or gunfire could erupt,” said Rallings. “Oh my God, there were just so many things that could’ve gone wrong.”
With children and babies in strollers on the bridge, the then interim police director ruled out tear gas, pepper spray and force.
“But I was also concerned,” he said. “I looked into the eyes of my officers and could see the uncertainty about what was going to happen next.”
Rallings had just come from church that Sunday night and says he heard an internal voice guide his non-violent approach.
“I could just clearly hear the voice of Dr. King saying, ‘don’t let this happen,’” said Rallings.
Using all of his training from four years active duty U.S. Army and 26 years de-escalating conflicts on the Memphis force, Rallings put himself on the line.
“We couldn’t do a bunch of pushing and shoving and that almost broke out,” he said. “I just remember getting between my guys and the protesters and ‘NO! No. We’re almost at the end. This thing cannot go this way.’”
Ultimately, Rallings locked arms with the protesters and marched off the bridge with not as much as a scratch suffered by anyone.
“I thank the brave men and women of MPD for showing enormous restraint because there were some tense moments. And I thank the protesters,” said Rallings. “You got to have cooperation of both sides.”
Things went far differently on June 12, 2019, when Memphis police had nothing to do with the shooting of a young man in Frayser.
“To think that we had over 30 deputies and police officers injured on that scene,” he said. “One of my chiefs let me know, everybody out there got hit with a rock or brick or something else being thrown at them.”
Violence erupted after word spread like wildfire about the killing of 20-year-old Brandon Webber.
A U.S. Marshal’s fugitive squad had tracked Webber to a Frayser address.
Reports said Webber had gone on Facebook Marketplace and arranged to test drive a luxury car in Hernando but ended up shooting the seller five times and stealing his car.
When federal marshals blocked Webber in, they say he rammed their cars, brandished a weapon and marshals opened fire.
”When you think about that, MPD showed enormous restraint,” he said. “There were a number of situations where deadly force probably could’ve been used. That situation was resolved with non-lethal methods.”
That painful night didn’t help Rallings’ relentless efforts to recruit new troops.
“We graduated 700 police recruits. Well, we needed 1,400 to get us where we need to be because we have high attrition,” he said. “I am fearful we as a nation as a community will be challenged to find young men and women to join law enforcement because it’s such a tough job.”
It only got tougher on May 25 last year with the death of George Floyd at the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Protests spread across America and became an almost nightly event in Memphis.
With the exception of one night when some windows were smashed downtown, dozens of marches were conducted peacefully with police protecting marchers.
”So I’m very proud of what we’ve done. You know, the city didn’t burn,” said Rallings.
Rallings says the next police director will need a full complement of 2,500 officers as well as many more Memphians sharing outrage at violent crime totals as we saw in 2020.
”After 39 children murdered here, I thought some people would get a wake-up call. Three hundred thirty total homicides. And I haven’t seen it,” said Rallings.
But Rallings says it’s likely to get far worse July 1 when the Tennessee legislature’s permitless carry law for handguns takes effect.
“Why in the world in the midst of a pandemic would our state representatives, our elected officials decide to do this against the advice of law enforcement? I just cannot figure it out,” said Rallings.
Turning 55 next month, this native Memphian hopes to help his successor.
”It’s a tough job and we’ve just watched the job get tougher,” he said. “The challenges. What these police chiefs across the nation are facing is unbelievable. But wow, I’m just honored to have the ability to serve and I hope in some way I made a positive contribution to our city and our police department.”
Rallings says he’s looking for his next challenge but wants to help the next police director in any way he or she sees fit.
For now, the interim police director is Mike Ryall, Rallings’ deputy director and right-hand man for the last five years.
Thank you for your service Mike Rallings.