Weekly Update: Public Safety

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Reducing our decades-old violent crime rate has been and remains my number one challenge. Fixing this issue will take a long-term view and an understanding that it will require more than city government to achieve success.

We have a public safety plan, and we are working it every day. The plan is based on best practices in Memphis and other cities from around the country.

My parts of the plan can be summarized in six points:

1) Rebuilding MPD. Since we’ve taken office, and in partnership with the City Council, we’ve increased funding for the Memphis Police Department by $27 million and improved the pay, benefits and promotions for our officers to better recruit and retain them. With a recent graduating class, we’ve hired over 500 officers since 2016. Due the failure to recruit officers before I was mayor (zero were added in 2014), we had dropped to close to 1,900 officers in the summer of 2017. We are now just short of 2,100, a net increase of about 200 in three years. According to a recent study we commissioned, we need 2,800 officers. A fully staffed and resourced MPD is key to our overall efforts, and you can see by our actions that we’re making progress.

Recently, we lost a vote in City Council, where a majority of the body removed your opportunity from the November ballot to amend our charter and allow us to hire officers who live outside Shelby County. We will continue to move forward aggressively in our recruitment and retention efforts.

2) Punishing violent offenders. While there’s no question that we should explore alternatives to prison for non-violent felons, there’s also no question that we should prosecute violent criminals to the fullest extent of the law. (I support Governor Lee’s sentencing reform plan, which makes progress in this regard). We have worked with the state to strengthen penalties for gun crimes and domestic violence, as well as strengthened our partnership with the U.S. Attorney to drastically increase prosecutions of violent gun crimes (by 58% as of last year) in the tougher federal system.

3) Positively affecting more young people. The true long-term solution to crime is young people picking the right path instead of the wrong one. Young people need something productive to do when they’re not in school. Prior to the pandemic, we had greatly increased those activities. We had increased by 90 percent the number of youth summer jobs compared to when we took office, and we worked with the private sector to create even more. Youth library programming and parks youth athletics participation had more than doubled, and 37% more youth are using our community centers. We also increased outreach to at-risk youth with a new opportunity youth comprehensive plan. And while it is certainly a long-term investment, we funded universal, needs-based Pre-K for the first time in City history.

4) Reducing recidivism. We have expanded programs that work to connect local employers with individuals who have paid their debt to society and are leaving prison. We raised private funds to pay for the expungement fees for hundreds of non-violent felons and have lobbied to have those fees reduced. It is vitally important that ex-felons have the opportunity to become productive members of society, or else, as statistics show, they are more likely to commit crimes again.

5) Increasing economic opportunity. Tall, shiny buildings aren’t the only reason I so often tout our new developments and increased investment. It’s the jobs that they bring with them. At City Hall, we have worked hard to create an environment in our city to enable the private sector to invest more and more, and we’ve worked to overhaul how our community attracts new jobs. Data shows that 20,000 more Memphians were working at the beginning of this year than when I became mayor in 2016.

6) Focused deterrence. This is a proven best practice. It involves identifying those individuals who are responsible for much of our violent crime and sending them a clear message that they will be held accountable to the full extent of the law if they continue committing violent crimes. Alternatively, if they work to change their behavior, we will help them move in the right direction. We have had success with a pilot program, but need to scale it up to larger capacity. This will involve more resources from MPD and the Tennessee Department of Correction’s probation and parole division.

Our overall public safety plan is Operation: Safe Community, in which the above points are my primary responsibility. To read the full Safe Community plan, go here.

While we have had success in each of these areas in my time as mayor and our crime rate has decreased the last few years, we still have much more work to do. I also know that the end result needs to be a much lower violent crime rate, which is why I feel personally responsible to get the job done.

There are, of course, other drivers of crime that are not in the plan, but that we are addressing, such as poverty. A few weeks ago, I outlined some of the things we are doing to drive down our poverty rate. To view the full update, go here. It appears that our collective work is showing some success. We will expand on this in a future report to you, but our poverty rate decreased by 22% in 2019, to its lowest rate in at least 18 years.

We also need significant contributions from many others to achieve ultimate success:

a. Parental Responsibility. Parents and families have the biggest impact on a young person, and I cannot make all adults take the personal responsibility to properly raise a child. As stated above, we have worked to significantly increase and improve city government’s interventions with young people, but government cannot do it all.

b. Guns. While there is a deep divide in our nation and community over whether government can or should limit access to certain firearms, the fact is too many young people have easy access to too many weapons. Director Rallings has been an officer in Memphis for 30 years, and when I asked him recently to compare the number of young people with guns when he started to now, he said it was not even close; 30 years ago, it was unusual to find a teen with a gun. In city government, we have worked to slow the problem (free gun locks, encouraging people to put their guns in safes, increasing prosecutions of illegal use of guns, working with the state legislature to keep permitting requirements in place), but state and federal laws are much different than 30 years ago, and city government has no authority over gun regulations.

c. Criminal Sentencing. Too often there is a revolving door in prison for violent criminals. We have worked to remedy that, but there is still more to do. We need truth-in-sentencing for violent crimes, meaning if a violent criminal is sentenced to six years, he or she serves six years and not two. One example of a sentencing law that needs strengthening: under current state law, if someone fires a gun from one car into another on the interstate, and no one is injured, the criminal is presumed by the court under the law to get probation without any jail time.

d. Educational Achievement. Currently, only about 25% of Memphis 3rd graders in public schools read at 3rd grade level. About 15%--20% of high school students drop out before graduation, and of those who graduate, less than 20% are college ready. We are failing our children on the basic and core ability of literacy. And when I say “we,” I truly mean all Memphians. Our community must do better. Universal needs-based Pre-K will help and programs like Arise2Read and Team Read are helping, but so much more must be done.

After a few years of decreasing violent crime, murder (+50%) and aggravated assaults (+19%) have increased during the last several months. This is a national issue, and no one knows for sure why it is happening. In my opinion, the pandemic has caused many positive outlets for young people to be closed or limited, such as jobs, schools, sports, community centers, and churches while negative outlets and bad influences remain operational.

I wish I could tell you that everything will be fixed in a few weeks, but unfortunately, I cannot. I love this city; I grieve for those victims of violent crime (many of whom I have met) and hurt for those who feel afraid in their own homes.

In the long-term, I do believe that we will succeed on this front, but it will take all of us—every Memphian—working together to create the Memphis every citizen deserves.


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