A neon sign reading "police" is reflected in a storefront window.
The sign from a former police precinct is reflected on a storefront along Beale Street. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

The Memphis Police Department is expected in June to begin enforcing a downtown curfew for youth unaccompanied by adults while the department continues to discuss the creation of a “special program” to target children suspected of committing crimes in downtown Memphis.

This comes less than four months after since-fired MPD officers in the special SCORPION unit allegedly beat Tyre Nichols to death and just weeks after community advocates pressured the Memphis City Council to pass six solutions-oriented reforms that will increase accountability and improve the nature of policing in the city. Citing youth as the cause for more than 60% of thefts downtown, MPD is in the early stages of creating a “Juvenile Crime Abatement Program.” The program would address the “influx of juveniles gathering on the weekends in the Downtown Entertainment District,” according to a leaked draft presentation.

MPD’s initial plan for the program was that it would be staffed by 11 MPD personnel, including one lieutenant, two sergeants and eight patrol officers. One plainclothes officer would be stationed on the rooftop of the AutoZone headquarters building to oversee downtown and “identify criminal behavior.” The team would be expected to operate in the Downtown Entertainment District between 5 p.m. and 1 a.m. 

Since the draft presentation was leaked, an MPD spokesperson told MLK50 in an interview the details about the proposed program were just ideas and still needed to be discussed and finalized internally before being implemented. Still, MPD’s approach to youth crime reflects an internal departmental culture where youth behavior is viewed as a problem to be squashed by police.

“The tail should not wag the dog, the dog should wag the tail,” the draft presentation states on its closing slide.

The program represents “an egregious, racist concept of public safety that would violate the civil rights of young people and undermine trust between the community and law enforcement.”

The Justice and Safety Alliance

The draft presentation outlines how officers from MPD’s North Main Station would target unaccompanied youth who are “inappropriately dressed” and playing loud music, hanging out of cars, selling food, asking for donations, dancing in the street and other “actions that disrupt the harmony of the Downtown community.” MPD would then take custody of the youth to transport them to one of many options outlined in the presentation ––juvenile court, North Main Station, Department of Children’s Services, the State of Tennessee –– but not to the child’s home: “Officers will not transport juvenile offenders to a residence,” the draft presentation states in bright red letters.

MPD told the City Council at its Tuesday morning Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee meeting that youth caught out past curfew will be taken to the Greenlaw Community Center in Uptown. The curfew is expected to be enforced sometime in June.

The Justice and Safety Alliance, a coalition of Memphis-based community organizations which advocate for equitable policies rooted in social justice, released a statement opposing MPD’s program, saying it “allows for pretextual pedestrian stops that criminalize normal teen behavior.” The program represents “an egregious, racist concept of public safety that would violate the civil rights of young people and undermine trust between the community and law enforcement.”

MLK50 still has questions.

• MPD’s draft presentation uses “downtown” and “Downtown Entertainment District” interchangeably. What are the exact boundaries of both areas? 

• The proposed program will have six primary responsibilities. One is to transport arrested youth to juvenile court. If the court refuses, MPD will contact parents and the Shelby County Department of Children’s Services — where as of last month, children were sleeping in offices — to take custody of youth that MPD arrests if a parent or guardian doesn’t pick them up from North Main Station. Why is involvement with struggling DCS seen as a solution to juvenile crime?

• If DCS refuses to accept the child, MPD will bind the child over to the State of Tennessee and charge the parents with child abandonment, according to the draft presentation. How does MPD justify charging parents as a solution to juvenile crime?

What consideration will be given for parents/guardians working multiple hourly and/or low-wage jobs who would be unable to pick up their children? 

How was the arrangement made between MPD, Shelby County Juvenile Court and DCS to bring the proposed abatement program to life?

If the goal is to encourage positive youth behavior, what existing community-based youth programs can/does MPD support to provide alternative solutions that will not further criminalize youth?

• MPD’s presentation contends that youth are responsible for over 60% of thefts Downtown. What data and proof does the department have to support this figure?

What data does MPD have to show overall youth crime across Memphis, and how do those numbers compare to downtown? 

If that data and information is being used to justify the creation and enforcement of a program to surveil youth activities downtown, what is MPD’s level of willingness to share it with the public?

Is “program” just another word for “unit,” similar to the SCORPION unit? If not, what’s the difference between a unit and a special program?

• MPD officers in this proposed program would monitor unaccompanied youth who are “inappropriately dressed.” What is considered inappropriate dress? What’s the connection between clothing and the likelihood that a youth will commit a crime? 

• The draft plan says that one officer would be stationed atop the AutoZone headquarters building to look for criminal behavior. How was the agreement made between MPD and AutoZone?

The proposed program is currently on pause while city and MPD officials have conversations about the program’s rollout. Who are the “key stakeholders” that are a part of these planning conversations in regards to a downtown youth curfew and the Juvenile Crime Abatement Program?

When will MPD begin enforcing the downtown youth curfew? 

Will the curfew enforcement be based on the 1996 curfew ordinance? 

If so, why would a 27-year-old ordinance be a solution to youth crime given studies that show the ineffectiveness of curfews?

What demographics of youth does MPD expect will be most impacted by the curfew and abatement program?

What is MPD and the city’s sense of accountability to positively intervene in youth behavior to deter them from juvenile crime and reroute them to positive, community-based programs and activities?

Brittany Brown is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email her at brittany.brown@mlk50.com

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