It’s been interesting to read outgoing Mayor Jim Strickland’s newsletters these days.
His May 12 edition featured an image of Monopoly’s “Get Out of Jail Free” card, accusing “multiple people within the criminal justice system and the Juvenile Court” of giving them out. Worse, he wrote, “the bad guys know it” and that encourages them to keep committing crimes.
He presents news stories highlighting violent offenders he says were quickly released on low bonds. Then he moves on to the fact that the Memphis police are arresting hundreds of people for car theft and theft from cars, but writes that the court systems are not keeping or punishing the criminals.
In his May 19 edition, the mayor went further, calling out a specific citizen, running down his arrest and bond record and writing in bold letters: “Catch and release” four times, like a mantra for his readers.
The DA responded on May 25, explaining that the named citizen was in custody and explaining the office’s practices, which included seeking pretrial detention. It cleared up that the DA’s office doesn’t set bonds and noted that the mayor had made an error in writing that the DA’s office had not moved to revoke the citizen’s bond. The office had done just that on May 16. Strickland was to make a correction in his next newsletter.
And he did. Way at the bottom of his May 26 newsletter. There, Strickland acknowledged that his statement was inaccurate, while adding an inaccurate date (stating that the DA filed the motion on May 17). Then he followed that by writing that the DA’s office hadn’t acted fast enough and should have filed earlier.
As we at MLK50: Justice Through Journalism prepare to cover October’s mayoral race, it’s particularly key to focus on how politicians communicate. We need to closely read and listen to their words; the things they say and the things they don’t. There are stories there and truths about how they’ll lead, how they’ll engage with the community.
On May 17, an unintended response to the mayor’s Monopoly message came when the Memphis Flyer published a piece showing that the MPD’s clearance rate — the ratio of crimes reported to arrests made — was well below that national average, aka, in the words of Mulroy, “abysmal.” (The DA graciously didn’t blame the police chief or the department, which he called “under-resourced.”)
Surely the mayor knew or could have known about the clearance rate as he crafted his newsletter. He has access to a lot of stats! Why would he talk about “bad guys” readily getting out when his police department is not even successfully putting them in? Why is he calling out the office of a DA and a juvenile court, both led by people — fellow Democrats — who haven’t been in office for a year? Is it because they’ve both declared they’d like to try new approaches to criminal justice?
We know from the last municipal race we covered that listening to the community, covering what it tells us are the issues and not letting those running for office decide the priorities strengthens the value of our journalism. But more importantly, it strengthens our democracy.
So we’ll keep reading the lines and between them.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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