A line of Black residents stand wait for their turn at a microphone during a community meeting. In the foreground is Memphis Police Department Chief Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis.
At a meeting about the presence of the Memphis Police Department at the Greenlaw Community Center in May, residents lined up to speak their minds regarding public safety and a proposed youth curfew. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

On July 27, the Department of Justice opened a pattern or practice civil rights investigation into the Memphis Police Department. Although the investigation comes six months after the beating death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of MPD, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the investigation was not prompted by any single incident but rather by multiple reports of violence and racism, which suggested fundamental problems with the department’s standards and practices.

“It can’t be overstated how important (the investigation) is and what a critical opportunity this is for our community,” said Josh Spickler, founder of Just City, a nonprofit devoted to criminal justice reform. 

A few weeks before the DOJ announced its investigation, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation released its 2022 crime report, which shows that MPD’s clearance rate fell from 22% in 2021 to 18% in 2022. (For more about clearance rates, see the Memphis Flyer’s May 23 story, “What’s Wrong with The MPD?”) 

Even though the department’s $284 million budget makes up a whopping 39% of the city’s total budget, by the clearance standard alone, MPD is ineffective. “If we talk about basics of government function, which our current mayor does quite a bit, one of the basic responsibilities of a police department is to try to solve crime,” Spickler said. “Eighty-two percent of the time, they’re failing to do that.

“We have to have accountability for this police department, because that’s what leads to trust. Trust leads to solving crimes, which leads to this clearance rate going up, which leads to people who commit crime and harm us being held accountable. That’s what we all ultimately want.”

All of this is happening as part of a national and local conversation about police reform, during a hot summer of rising crime rates, with an important municipal election less than two months away. Seventeen candidates are vying to replace the term-limited Mayor Jim Strickland, who ran and governed on a “tough on crime” platform, only to watch crime rates soar during his last years and his department fall under unprecedented scrutiny.

This story takes a look at three facets of the public safety discussion: access to guns, police staffing and violence interruption programs. 

Guns Everywhere

When you talk about crime in Tennessee, guns are the elephant in the room. According to the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, gun-related violent incidents topped 1,600 in 2022, up 28% from just over 1,250 such incidents in 2016, the year Strickland took office. Guns are everywhere in Tennessee, and that’s how the Republican super-majority in the state legislature likes it. In 2021, the legislature made it legal for almost anyone to carry a firearm without a permit. After the Covenant School shooting in Nashville in March, where a former student killed three children and three teachers with a legally purchased AR-15 assault rifle, a student-led protest movement urged the legislature to pass red flag laws, which would allow authorities to confiscate guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others.

When Democratic Representatives Justin J. Pearson, Justin Jones, and Gloria Johnson brought the protests into the House chamber, Republicans responded by expelling Pearson and Jones, both of whom are Black. (Johnson, who is white, was spared expulsion by one vote.) President Joe Biden called the expulsions “shocking, undemocratic, and without precedent.” Both Pearson and Jones were easily re-elected to their seats earlier this month, in time to participate in the Aug. 21 special session called by Gov. Bill Lee, ostensibly to address the state’s exploding epidemic of gun violence.

A group of protestors stand and lay on the floor of the Tennessee capitol building.
In the wake of the shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School, Tennesseans took to the state capitol to protest the state’s absence of gun safety legislation April 7. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“Gun violence is the number one killer of children because of the decisions of the Tennessee state legislature that invoked permitless carry and that have put the values of the Tennessee Firearms Association, American Firearms Association, and the National Rifle Association over the lives of people in our community,” Pearson said.

Black communities in Tennessee are disproportionately affected by gun violence, Pearson noted. While 12% of Tennesseans are Black, they represent 38% of crime victims in 2022, according to the TBI. “I buried a friend this year,” he said. “Last year, I buried a mentor who died from gun violence. This is not normal.”

He wants to see laws that protect children, protection orders that shield domestic abuse victims, stronger background checks and tracing the routes by which guns come into our community.

Rep. Justin J. Pearson stands at a podium.
Rep. Justin J. Pearson during the April 7 session where he spoke in favor of gun reform and against expulsion from his democratically-elected seat. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

“Memphis doesn’t have any gun manufacturers, yet we have this extreme amount of gun violence. We need to figure out why that is and who is proliferating and profiting off of the pain and the suffering that we are experiencing,” he said.

Recent proposals before the city council would repeal permitless carry in Memphis and ban the sale of assault rifles. But even if the local proposals passed, many assume that the state legislature would simply preempt them. “The reality is, we are always going to be facing the issue of preemption,” Pearson said. “Our state legislators who represent Memphis and Shelby County, they’re going to have to start standing tall and speaking up and using their voices.” 

More Police? 

Is the solution to Memphis’ crime problem simply to hire more police officers? “There is evidence that the presence of police has an impact on crime, which feeds this [faulty] argument that we just need more of ’em,” Spickler said.

While people are less likely to commit crimes in the presence of a police officer, the assumption that a bigger police department leads to safer communities does not hold up to scientific scrutiny. A meta-study published in the August 2016 Journal of Experimental Criminology collected all available data about police force size and crime rates from 1968 to 2013. “The overall effect size for police force size on crime is negative, small, and not statistically significant,” researchers found.

“Changing policing strategy is likely to have a greater impact on crime than adding more police.” 

A man in a suit and three uniformed  Memphis police officers stand behind a table advertising jobs with the department.
The Memphis Police Department set up a table during the May community meeting at the Greenlaw Community Center. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

An October 2022 report from Catalyst California and ACLU of Southern California crunched data on sheriff’s offices throughout their state. “A common, long-held belief is that communities need to greatly invest in law enforcement — rather than other potential safety solutions — to prevent serious violence from occurring,” the authors wrote.

“This ‘tough on crime’ approach views law enforcement as the primary (if not sole) solution to protect community members from heinous harms like homicide, robbery, and assault. It presumes that law enforcement agencies significantly focus their efforts on responding to calls for help (e.g. 911) from community members in imminent danger, and that their actions are an effective means of harm prevention.” 

Instead, the study found that California sheriff departments spent very little time actually responding to calls for help. In Los Angeles County, only 11% of deputies’ time was spent on service calls. The rest of the time was spent on officer-initiated traffic stops, two-thirds of which were for non-moving violations and ended with no action, suggesting the stops were used as a pretext to search for drugs and weapons. 

While this study did not cover Tennessee, it is consistent with a larger pattern in modern policing. The incident that ended in Tyre Nichols’ death began as a pretextual traffic stop by MPD’s since-disbanded SCORPION unit. “The reality is that things like ‘jump out squads’ have been happening in communities, especially poor communities of color, for generations,” says Spickler. 

MPD needs to become broader than just a police department, Spickler said, but more of a public safety department, not just staffed with armed officers in patrol cars, but people who can address nuisances and public health issues that some people think of as crimes.

“Administrative things like traffic and car tags, mental illness, homelessness — those are all things that we can respond to in another way. It will keep us from having things like Tyre Nichols or the many, many other use-of-force incidents we’re familiar with. 

“This department needs to essentially go away and be rebuilt and rebranded as something different than an occupying force that is out there trying desperately to do something about crime. It’s no knock on the people out there trying, wearing the badges. That’s an impossible task. Let’s give them a job that they can accomplish instead of just sending them in to fail.”

Interrupting Violence

In 2021, Youth Villages launched Memphis Allies to reduce gun violence in Memphis and Shelby County. The collaborative initiative works with other organizations to help those “at highest risk for involvement with gun violence and to provide services to those individuals to change the trajectory that they have been on previously,” said Susan Deason, Memphis Allies’ executive director.

A white woman sits at a table holding a microphone.
Susan Deason, executive director of the violence prevention program Memphis Allies, speaks at a panel sponsored by the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission in January. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

The program serves people as young as 12 to over 30, usually those with extensive criminal justice histories. They may have pending weapons charges, been recently shot or shot at, or have relatives who have been shot or shot at, Deason said. “They are typically out of school or unemployed and are also typically involved in a gang or a crew,” she said.

Most of the individuals, Deason said, are looking for a way out of their violent circumstances. “While there are individuals who don’t need to be out on the streets based on the crime that they committed, ultimately, we believe everybody needs a chance to be rehabilitated and to make different choices,” she said.

“Oftentimes, someone who is at highest risk and who is involved in gun violence doesn’t really know about those other opportunities or hasn’t had somebody to help them make those changes. And it’s very difficult to make a complete lifestyle change on your own.”

Two Black men stand behind a podium. One of the men is holding a microphone.
MPD veteran Jimmie H. Johnson, seen here speaking at a recent community event, was appointed by Mayor Jim Strickland to head the city’s Group Violence Intervention Program. Photo via Johnson’s LinkedIn

In April 2022, Strickland appointed Jimmie H. Johnson, a 12-year MPD veteran, as the administrator for the city’s Group Violence Intervention Program.

The city’s program contracted with 901 Bloc Squad to be a street intervention team, Johnson said. “They are mainly out there in the neighborhood, staying abreast of what’s going on between groups, keeping street beefs down to a minimum.”

In addition, the city has eight hospital interventionists assigned to Regional One Health and will soon be at Methodist North Hospital, Johnson said. “We want to expand to every hospital in the city.” 

Johnson’s “credible messengers” talk to people with fresh gunshot wounds. “When somebody’s being transported to the hospital, you have to go to them and say, ‘We’d like to stop this cycle of violence. We wanna help you.’”

Root Causes

Throughout history, crime and violence have always been associated with poverty. It’s no coincidence that the American cities with the highest crime rates, including Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Memphis, are among the country’s poorest cities.

According to the University of Memphis’ 2022 Memphis Poverty Fact Sheet, 23% of Memphians live below the poverty level, 10 points higher than the national average. Thirty-three percent of Memphis’ children live in poverty, almost double the national rate of 17%.

“The most important thing that we can do to deal with gun violence and gun violence prevention is to deal with the issue of poverty,” Pearson said.

“If we don’t address root causes of economic inequality and racial injustice in Memphis and Shelby County in Tennessee, then these types of issues like gun violence are going to continuously be entrenched in policies and practices of the legislature and of people in positions of power.”

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