The violent crime rate for the first quarter of this year dashed all hopes that the dip from a year ago was going to become a trend.

Instead, violent crime has reached a 17-year high, according to data released by the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. It is up 7.7% (murders increased 35%) and 73% of them involved guns. Property crimes have climbed by 43.8% (vehicle thefts have skyrocketed by 155%).

It’s an indictment of the “more cops, tougher sentences, jail more people” policies that have dominated public policy for the past decade. 

Ben Adams, chair of the Shelby County Crime Commission

While embarked largely on hard-right policies, the crime rate has now risen to the highest level since the first quarter of 2006.

Comments by attorney Ben Adams, Memphis Shelby Crime Commission board chair, suggest that even that body realizes that it should consider other approaches, mentioning changes in Juvenile Court’s detention policy, scaling up a system of restorative justice, or more intensive community supervision.

Wanted: Disrupter mayor

There are dramatic reasons for Mayor Jim Strickland’s angst about the crime rate. Elected as the person who could reduce crime, he has come to realize how intractable it can be. The violent crime rate has risen 34% since his election. Property crimes have risen an inconceivable 72%.

Here’s hoping that the compelling evidence that the current approach isn’t working will produce some different rhetoric and some innovative ideas from City Hall in the mayor’s lame-duck year.  

That’s not to say the rhetoric of mayoral candidates has been particularly encouraging. So far, most of what they have said are variations on a theme rooted in the conventional wisdom that has dominated crime-fighting policies in Memphis for too many years. 

What Memphis so obviously needs in the mayor’s office is a disrupter, someone who’ll become part of the reform movement that is yielding promising results in other cities. Simply put, it is about reimagining the definition of public safety so it’s not just police-centric but involves mental health professionals, community leaders, mentors, trusted messengers, and more.

The irony is that our community is highly successful in locking up more people, but in the long run, as former Shelby County Mayor Bill Morris said 25 years ago, “we can’t build enough cells as a way out of the rise in crime.”

The data

Already, about 4,000 people from Shelby County are jailed for felonies, according to 2022 Tennessee Department of Corrections data. Put another way, people from Shelby County make up 15.2% of the total 25,000 Tennesseans held in county jails or prisons across the state.

Major Violent Crime Rate (incidents per 100,000 population)

558.5 – 2021
540.4 – 2022
582.1 – 2023

Major Property Crime (includes vehicle thefts, reported burglaries and other felony thefts)

1281.0 – 2021
1421.1 – 2022
2043.3 – 2023

*Data is for the first quarter (January-March) of each year.

Of the state’s 95 counties, Shelby County is #1. Second is Davidson County (Nashville) with 9.7% of the felons in jail and prison.

Meanwhile, of the 46 people on Tennessee’s death row, 24 are from Shelby County and 18 are Black. This includes Larry McKay and Michael Sample, both 66 years old and from Shelby County, who have been there since February 1983.

Just this week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to intervene in an appeal from Kevin Burns, an African American man from Memphis, on the grounds that he had ineffective counsel. Justice Sonia Sotomayor called it “disheartening” and “a very robust possibility” that Burns was not guilty of murder in the 1992 shooting deaths of two people. 

Tom Jones, Smart City Memphis blog

Tom Jones is principal at Smart City Consulting, a strategic communications, strategic planning, and policy development firm, and primary writer of the blog, Smart City Memphis, described by Partnership for Civic Change as one of the “most engaging blogs in the U.S.” He is also a member of MLK50’s advisory board.