Editor’s note: On July 26, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it will conduct a “pattern or practice” review into the Memphis Police Department.
In Memphis, 2022 was dominated, and in many ways defined by, news about violence. According to most news outlets, Memphis had a record-scary year in terms of public safety and “crime”; the coverage in 2023 has felt like a ticker of names and faces, “suspects” and “victims,” and police and political leaders promising to curb the violence.
And yet, in 2022, murder rates were down from the previous two years. You wouldn’t know it from reading most news articles over the last few months, particularly the fear-mongering coverage of the shooter who killed three people and injured four more on Sept. 7, and the coverage of the tragic rape and murder of Eliza Fletcher that same month.
Whether we are close to it or not, violence takes something away from the whole community, and the whole community must take responsibility for addressing the root causes.
Want to report your encounter with police?
If you’ve experienced violence from the police or had an encounter with the Memphis Police Department that you think violated your civil rights, the U.S. Department of Justice wants to hear your story.
Tell them about it here: https://civilrights.justice.gov/report/
Gun violence in this country is a scourge, and rising racist and transphobic attacks make questioning our safety a daily reality for many, as MLK50 editor Adrienne Martin wrote about in May. And violence, of course, takes the most away from its victims and their closest people: life, breath, a sense of belonging, sleep at night. Futures and pasts are stolen as grief sucks the life out of life.
But to meaningfully intervene, we need to change how we think and talk about community safety. That means reorienting our discussions from a focus on police and policing to a focus on evidence-based and community-driven approaches to violence and harm. And it means avoiding “copaganda,” the practice of repeating and promoting police narratives unchecked. It means checking for bias in our news reporting and not focusing on the perceived safety of some (wealthy, white) residents over the safety of Black and brown people, who are placed at risk by policing itself.
Policing isn’t making our streets safer
To reclaim the narrative, we need to start by separating the idea of safety from policing. As my collaborators, Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie, wrote in their recently released book “No More Police”: “Police don’t promote safety, they prevent it.”
Policing, an institution with roots in colonial militias and slave patrols, has always existed to protect the owning class, control gender and racial relations and suppress protest and dissent.
What’s more, police kill over 1,000 people a year in this country – accounting for up to 5% of gun-related killings, an estimate that cannot be accurately tracked because police agencies don’t have to report how many people they kill to the FBI (the primary aggregator of national crime statistics).
Just this month, five Memphis Police Department officers were fired after they were accused of beating Tyre Nichols, 29, during a traffic stop. Nichols died from his injuries.
As Ritchie and Kaba write, “… the role of police is not to create safety, but to establish and maintain a violent social order rooted in white supremacy, patriarchy, wealth accumulation, and the protection of private property over public good.”
Responding to actual violence is a very small part of what police do; while there are precious few studies tracking 911 use nationally, one study found that in several cities, only 4% of calls to police are for a violent incident underway.
And yet, when rates of crime and violence go down, police take credit for making the streets safer. Take this example: In a July news story about a year-over-year decline in Memphis’ murder rate, Fox 13 quoted Memphis Police Department’s Major Webb Kirdoffer crediting MPD Police Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis for the lower homicide rate: “Chief [C.J.] Davis and the command staff have initiated the Scorpion Unit, Auto Theft Task Force Unit and other groups… they’re out there hitting these hot spots daily making an impression on the homicide rate.”
But according to FBI crime data, murder rates were down across major cities in 2022, which is more likely tied to shifting social and political dynamics than to crime units stopping homicides one by one. On the flip side, when the rates of violent crime go up, as they did in 2020 and 2021, police advocates blame others and ask for still more funding and resources.
The way journalists report on safety and violence often reinforces the narrative that more resources for policing=more safety. And yet the evidence often points in the opposite direction.
The 2022 police numbers revealed that a major driver of arrests in Memphis is the crime of auto theft, a crime most often committed by 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds. And yet a recent Daily Memphian column by an anonymous police officer argues that police should be empowered to chase and confront carjackers, which would put the public at risk of ending up in the crossfire of escalated police confrontations.
There is no evidence – or logic – behind the idea that this would reduce the number of stolen vehicles. Yet the Daily Memphian allowed this unnamed cop to push for increased confrontations between armed officers and often unarmed teens.
The person charged with raping and murdering Eliza Fletcher was arrested throughout the late 1990s, and then incarcerated for 20 years. Did Cleotha Abston’s encounters with police, beginning at age 11, make others safer?
Some will argue he should have served his full sentence of 24 years for a kidnapping conviction; Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland chose exactly that rhetorical route, blaming “a judicial system that will not punish.” But another way to frame this story is as a complete failure of the system of policing and punishment itself.
The state had the opportunity to aid in Abston’s healing, accountability and rehabilitation from a young age when his brain was still forming. That decades of punishment through juvenile detention and prison didn’t result in more safety is an indictment of the system itself. This system absolves us of collective responsibility for violence and harm by putting those convicted of certain kinds of violence out of sight and out of mind, scapegoating and shaming them and their families and making their lives exceedingly difficult to live when they return.
Leaders such as Strickland call for more punishment when convenient, without facing the failure of the very punishments they call for. Police have been in the same pattern for decades.
What if we embraced the idea that we cannot simply send the problem of violence to rot in prison somewhere?
Look at the evidence
We know more than we think about what does create more safety in communities. In the neighborhoods with the least violence, there is quality education, low poverty rates and high levels of community engagement through nonprofit groups.
Our communities are safer when we are not exploited or hyper-policed. Our communities are safer when more people have their basic needs met, including health care, mental health and addiction treatment and housing. In surveys conducted across the country in 2020 and 2021, majorities in many communities supported shifting resources from policing into these very resources (one report from Philadelphia details the results).
We also know that communities are safer when fewer guns are available – a fact many public officials ignore as they pass new laws to make guns even easier to acquire and carry.
In communities where resources are abundant and guns are rare, a violent outburst can become an exception rather than a rule.
In indigenous communities across the globe for centuries, and in many religious communities and subcultures of oppressed peoples, practices have been developed to circle the victim and the perpetrator, supporting a cycle of healing rather than an escalation of violence.
Restorative and transformative justice practices ask all affected by harm to come to the table, seeking a resolution that gets at the root causes of violence and harm. These are not utopian visions but realities already being practiced in different ways across the world and throughout history.
Because we know so much about safety, journalists and residents should question police-driven solutions to violence. For example, even before the events of late 2022, elected officials called for more enforcement of Memphis’ youth curfew. Many news outlets reported this without question, even though, according to MLK50 guest columnist Mike Males, a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, curfews have little effect on crime. Curfew enforcement, despite being pointless, can justify the need for more police and more police funding.
What keeps us safe? We do. In 2021, MLK50 covered a brake light clinic in which DeCarcerate Memphis fixed residents’ brake lights for free to reduce the likelihood of police encounters. Youth in Memphis are organizing to create more safety by addressing youth employment. Advocates for economic justice are demanding accountability for wage theft and exploitation.
And, as we detailed in a recent event co-sponsored by MLK50 and the organization where I am a fellow, Interrupting Criminalization, we can change the narrative about safety by challenging copaganda and insisting on rigorous, sensitive and factual coverage of violence and harm.
We are responsible for not repeating police narratives or sensationalizing certain victims of violence over others, which often means diminishing the importance of Black life. We are responsible for one another’s lives.
Lewis Raven Wallace is the author and creator of “The View from Somewhere,” a book and podcast about the myth of “objectivity” in journalism. They are currently the Abolition Journalism Fellow at Interrupting Criminalization and a 2021 Ford Global Fellow. @lewispants
This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by these generous donors.