Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland on Tuesday defended the Memphis Police Department and its handling of a rape investigation that prompted a lawsuit from a woman last week, alleging Memphis mother Eliza Fletcher would still be alive if the department had arrested 38-year-old Cleotha Henderson sooner.
When asked if MPD botched the investigation, Strickland said, "I don't know the details.... It's an active investigation. The mayor should not get down in the weeds on the investigation."
Strickland said the public would receive an explanation of what happened in the case when the case is resolved. He also said he had no knowledge of whether MPD should have acted sooner to identify Henderson in a 2021 rape investigation.
The victim in that 2021 investigation has said in media interviews and in court filings that MPD did not act soon enough on her case and that Fletcher, a teacher and mother of two who disappeared and was found dead earlier this month, would still be alive if MPD had acted.
The lawsuit claims investigators did not take physical evidence from the crime scene when they arrived, failed to expedite processing on the rape kit, did not fix an issue with a line-up that could have identified Henderson and missed a chance to attempt to arrest Henderson, despite having evidence against him.
Strickland's comments Tuesday were, in part, responses to questions from The Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis. He made those comments following his speech at a meeting of the Memphis Rotary Club.
During a brief speech, the mayor, as he often does, described the violent crime as one of the lingering issues that will still face Memphis when he leaves office at the end of 2023. He said violent crime represents the "deepest valley" his administration has traversed.
Strickland also told the media the events of the past three weeks -- the abduction and death of Fletcher and ensuing litigation and a mass shooting that left three dead -- had not prompted him to call for changes at MPD.
"I don't know details of investigations, but from what I see, other than the need for more police officers, that's what I'm focused on," Strickland said.
Over the past six years, the Strickland administration has spent tens of millions, including federal stimulus dollars, trying to beef up the ranks of MPD. The department has about 1,950 officers, short of the city's goal of 2,100.
Strickland said he hopes to have 2,100 on the force by the time he leaves office. The mayor also said he had spoken to members of Eliza Fletcher's family but would keep what was discussed privately.
Henderson, who also goes by Cleotha Abston, is charged with first-degree murder and exceptionally aggravated kidnapping in connection with Fletcher's death. She was found Sept. 5, three days after disappearing while jogging on the University of Memphis campus.
Henderson, 38, is also charged aggravated rape and kidnapping in a 2021 case. A woman has sued the city and an apartment complex over that incident. Henderson has pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Police charged Henderson in the 2021 case on Sept. 8 based on a DNA sample taken a year earlier. The delay, central to the woman's lawsuit, has spurred finger pointing and discussion of of delays in testing rape kits in Tennessee.
This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Memphis Mayor Strickland defends MPD handling of rape investigations