This series is in partnership with the Memphis Flyer.
While Paul Young, 43, has never held elected office, he’s been one of the most influential men in Memphis for a while.
As president of the Downtown Memphis Commission for the last two and a half years, he’s led the quasi-governmental commission’s efforts to restart Downtown’s growth after the pandemic hit the neighborhood hard. Before then, he led the City of Memphis’ Division of Housing and Community Development, which was responsible for developing the new Memphis Sports and Events Center and the still-on-hold dining, hospitality and entertainment project next door. He’s also been a lobbyist for Shelby County and an administrator for the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning & Development.
But when discussing public safety with The Memphis Flyer and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, the lifelong Memphian spoke far more about his personal experience than lessons from his time in public service.
By the time he was 21, he had lost “four or five” friends to gun violence, he said. And as the son of two pastors, he witnessed his parents constantly dealing with the grief violent crime brings.
“I know people that have been killed and have been the killers,” he said. “I’ve had friends that have been murdered by other friends — high school classmates and kids I grew up playing basketball with in the neighborhood.”
The following Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. This interview was conducted Sept. 8.
Let’s start with policing. The killing of Tyre Nichols at the hands of Memphis police officers obviously damaged the community’s trust in the police. What steps would you take to rebuild that trust?
Rebuilding trust is the number one goal for the Memphis Police Department over the next couple of years. I think that the ordinances that were passed at City Council were a step in the right direction. But I believe that it’s important that we do everything we can to restore that faith.
I think that having a presence in the communities, not just when it’s time to enforce the law — walking through neighborhoods and communities and showing up to community meetings as a sign of support — those are things that I think can be done at little cost. It’s hard to hate people that you know. It’s hard to hate somebody that you look in the eyes on a regular basis. Having individuals on the police force that understand these communities and building those relationships is the way that we change the tenor. If I make that a priority, the Memphis Police Department will follow the model that I set forth.
How would you describe Cerelyn “C.J.” Davis’ performance as police chief?
I think she’s done a good job. Obviously, the incident with Tyre Nichols and the SCORPION unit and what appears to be a lack of oversight is something that she has to own. And I think she has owned the mistakes and tried to do the things necessary to right the course, and that’s what leadership is about.
The challenge before CJ now is making sure that she can maintain trust and respect with the officers that work under her leadership and also show transparency and openness to engage with the public in what can be sometimes hostile environments. The visceral hate that we’re seeing in our community between residents and officers is something that only goes away when you build relationships, and the chief has to be the tip of the spear when it comes to making that happen.
The MPD currently has about 1,900 officers but says it needs 2,500. Do you agree 2,500 is the right number?
I agree. I don’t know that many people would disagree. As president of Downtown Memphis Commission, when I work with MPD on staffing issues for Downtown, I know there are tremendous staffing pressures that they’re under, particularly with overnight shifts.
How would you look to help MPD add officers?
We have to start introducing people to law enforcement younger. Just like we have training programs in high schools for the trades, we could introduce them to public safety careers. I think we obviously should continue to recruit from other cities. And I want our officers to be the highest paid officers in the region. I want them to feel like the big dog: When you work from Memphis, you’re on the premier force. You’re going to have the most resources, you’re going to have the best equipment and you’re going to have all the support that you need. There was a time that that was the case; when you worked for MPD, you were the big dog in the law enforcement community.
We also have to find the efficiencies that are going to make sure that we are being most efficient with the ones that we already have. When someone is arrested, it takes them three hours to process the arrest. This is just paperwork. This is just process improvement. These are things that we can be working on to get that officer back on the street. Those are the types of things that I want to analyze, so they can put more time into being present on the streets. Having a physical presence brings calm to our community.
Currently, nearly 40% of the city of Memphis’ budget goes to police. Should residents expect that under your administration, that share would go up, down or stay the same?
It will probably be about the same. You would see incremental increases as a result of increasing the number of staff, but I don’t see it going up significantly or going down significantly.
In order to truly make our community safe, we have to find ways to make additional investments in public safety that’s not necessarily MPD — investments in our parks and our community centers and mental health programs, things that will actually prevent the crime in the first place. We have to build up this additional support for public safety. At the same time we support this police system that we’ve been using for years.
MPD is currently under a civil rights investigation by the Department of Justice. How do you plan to ensure MPD treats all of Memphis’ citizens fairly?
I welcome the investigation that’s underway. It will help us identify national best practices for ensuring that everyone is being treated with dignity and respect. Leadership is making sure that I set the tone as mayor with my willingness to comply and willingness to engage. We want that to resonate with the chief of MPD and everyone that falls under her purview.
The investigation will also give us declarative actions that we can take to ensure that we’re doing exactly what we want.
Other than police, name three measures you would take to increase public safety.
First and foremost is data sharing. We need data sharing among MPD, juvenile court, truancy court and the school system. We should study the trajectory of criminals — of people that have gone down the wrong path — and what were some of the early indicators. My guess — I haven’t done the research — is you’re going to see suspensions from school and truancy. We should take that data, identify who’s headed down the wrong path, and deeply engage them in programs that can change their lives like My Brother’s Keeper.
Second is activating our community centers. When we look at young people, many are surprised that they’re running around busting windows. I’m not surprised because they want to have fun. There’s a thrill to busting windows. We have to have an alternative to it. We should engage our youth from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., when they’re the most mischievous.
And then investments in mental health programs. We have traumatized people that are out here traumatizing others. Our young people are experiencing trauma that is unnatural. Some people are losing uncles, brothers and cousins; they’re going to come back and retaliate unless someone works with them to change their outlook on the world. My mom started the Emotional Fitness Centers of Tennessee; I could see investing in programs like that.
What public safety solutions have you seen work in other cities that you would seek to implement here?
Pittsburgh re-trained their officers on how to engage on police stops. They talk about the weather and make small talk to disarm. They do that to reduce the likelihood of a negative encounter.
In Omaha, they put together a coalition of people from different agencies focused on holistic public safety. They’re using data to identify the young people that need other interventions. And they have a host of programs that are able to engage those young people when they’ve been identified.
Some cities have tried to respond to mental health crises with first responders who aren’t police officers. Is that a solution you’re interested in exploring for Memphis?
I’ve talked to people that have done it. The challenge you find is that when you have individuals responding to an intense scene or somebody’s having a mental health episode, with the proliferation of guns in our community, you still need a trained officer. Can we send mental health workers out with officers? Yes. Sending them out alone? No, I don’t think that’s wise.
Would you be willing to redirect any funds from policing to address mental health?
No, I’d find more money.
How do you plan to engage young people, to help them avoid gangs and criminal activity?
They have midnight basketball in St. Louis, and they’re working to activate their community centers for more hours. I want to invest in programs that are going to bring stronger children to the classroom — wearing them out playing basketball and other sports. I think that it’s really important that we invest in our community centers, our parks and our churches.
Memphis always ranks poorly in its number of roadway deaths. How would you help make our streets safer without relying solely on increased MPD enforcement?
We need drivers to be informed that the public right of way isn’t just for cars. It’s for people. People walk, they bike and they drive cars. We need public service announcements that remind people that they have to share the roads. We also should be exploring design solutions. There are ways that you can design intersections and roads such that they tighten at certain points that get people to slow down.
As mayor, what is a measure you would take to help get guns off the street?
Gun buyback programs — making sure people are turning those things in. And making sure we address illegal guns. When people commit crimes with those types of weapons, we should make sure there’s a higher penalty.
Do harsher penalties — for guns and in general — work to reduce crime?
I don’t know if they’re a strong deterrent, but I think they’re just. If you are committing certain crimes in our community then the penalty has to match the level of the brutality that you’re unleashing. Whether criminals are deterred or not, harsher penalties are the right thing to do. I don’t think that there will be like an overwhelming amount of people that will be deterred, but the question is what is the right amount of time for the chaos being wreaked.
As mayor, what is a measure you would take to reduce car break-ins and theft?
Those are young people. I had an opportunity to sit on a town hall panel with NLE Choppa a few months ago, and there was a young person who said he liked stealing cars. I asked why. He said, “I’m bored and I need some money.” Those are things we should be solving for! We have to find ways to engage youth, have them earn money and have fun.
As specifically as possible, what are your thoughts about maintaining a curfew on young Memphians?
I support the curfew. I think the challenge comes with implementation. I don’t agree with profiling; I don’t think you identify youth by what clothes they’re wearing. But if they’re obviously 10 or an adolescent, I think we should take them into custody where their parents can come and pick them up.
With prior city administrations, some outlets have had difficulty getting interviews with the mayor/city staffers/administrators and public records requests were not promptly fulfilled. How accessible would your administration be with the media? Are you willing to commit now that you will be open and responsive to the media?
Our goal is to be as accessible as possible. I’ve been working in local government for 20 years. So I understand the sensitivity of some of the issues that we work on but I also understand the public’s right to know. We’re gonna make sure that we are as open as transparent and as accessible as we can be. I’m committed to that.
Floyd Bonner is obviously the sheriff. And Willie Herenton has done this before. What experience do you have to help you make this community safer?
As president of Downtown Memphis Commission, we lead the Blue Suede Brigade, which is not a police force but they serve a security function and work with MPD. As incidents have taken place in Downtown Memphis, I’m in the War Room with the Memphis Police Department. We’re working and strategizing every day on how we can keep downtown safer.
The issues we’re dealing with around public safety are not strictly about law enforcement. It’s about all the things. It’s about the environment that young people grow up in — the fact that everything around them looks hopeless and you have houses that are crumbling. They don’t have options; this is something I deeply know and appreciate because of the work that I’ve done in communities and neighborhoods throughout the city. That’s experience the other candidates don’t have.
What personal experiences do you have with crime?
I’ve been robbed by people I know and have had guns pulled on me in my car. I’ve had, obviously, car break-ins and busted windows but that’s frivolous.
By the time I was 21, I had about four or five friends that had been shot and killed.
You become numb to it. My boy Ced got killed by another one of my friends when we were 20. One of my real close friends got shot and killed by a dude in an apartment with all my friends in the room — the dude just stood up and shot him because he took some liquor from him or something. One of my buddies just got killed last summer. It doesn’t stop.
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