In the mile of Springdale Street between Chelsea and Jackson avenues there are five churches. That’s not counting the churches on side streets.
On Eldridge Avenue, one of those side streets, between two tiny churches is a pair of identical small houses – both boarded up.
The one closest to the corner has faded blue spray paint stenciled across the plywood.
In inner-city Memphis, the stenciling is as familiar as gang graffiti. It’s the mark of the Memphis Police Department’s Blue CRUSH campaign.
Five years into the crackdown guided by a devotion to crime statistics, crime is down in Memphis.
But the statistical drop in crime has come with lingering questions and concerns in Springdale and other neighborhoods with Blue CRUSH houses.
“Once we board them up, we really have to depend on the community to let us know if drug dealers have broken back into them,” Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons said. “If we don’t know about it, sometimes drug dealers can get right back in there.”
In the neighborhoods, homeowners lament that street level dealers are easily replaced and soon released from jail to resume their place in the neighborhoods – now with a criminal record that makes a move away from drug dealing even more unlikely.
Last year, a team from Memphis that included a police officer, a state prosecutor, a federal prosecutor, a University of Memphis researcher, the head of the Memphis Leadership Foundation and the pastor of one of those five churches along Springdale went to several cities to get training in a new anti-drug strategy.
“We were really interested in changing people’s lives, not locking them up,” Springdale Baptist Pastor Derrick Hughes told The Memphis News. Hughes wasn’t sure at first if he would be part of the Drug Market Intervention (DMI) program.
“It sounded as if possibly it was just another program that was going to possibly just put criminals in jail without rehabilitation,” he said. “And I wanted to make sure that if we were going to be a part of something that it was going to look at rehabilitating the person, changing lives, changing them from a holistic point of view as well as a spiritual point of view.”
Gibbons said some of his prosecutors and some police brass also had their doubts as they looked for an area to test out DMI Memphis style.
“It was based primarily on looking at crime patterns and in particular drug activity in that area,” he told The Memphis News. There was plenty of open drug dealing in the Springdale area.
Drug Market Intervention is picking several street level drug dealers in a community, confronting them with the evidence against them and telling them they have one more chance to get out of the business. The police are involved in making a decision not to prosecute a few as they target dozens of others in an area.
Others on the team are community leaders from the neighborhood. And some are with proven programs to provide job training and other help in getting a legitimate job.
High Point, N.C., was the first stop for the Memphis group because it is the birthplace of DMI. It seems an unlikely example for Memphis with a population of fewer than 100,000. But in 2003, High Point had several open air drug markets. The city’s new police chief, James Fealy, attacked them using what became the DMI strategy.
David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Control and Prevention at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, replicated DMI in other cities with money from the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. The BJA funded the training of the Memphis team and came here.
Kennedy’s philosophy is specific to open air drug markets. It doesn’t pretend to eliminate all drug dealing.
“Open air drug markets are found primarily in our cities and in African-American neighborhoods,” Kennedy wrote in a 2008 article for the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) Journal. “Although we are loathe to admit it, this issue is soaked in race.”
Kennedy said police complained to him that the families of the drug dealers and others in the surrounding communities knew they were selling drugs, did nothing to stop it and profited from it.
But Kennedy said those living in the communities countered that police were only interested in locking up as many people as they could as part of a conspiracy to destroy the community.
Kennedy said each side had a point and each side was wrong.
“The crime is real and overwhelmingly the arrests are legitimate. But we are destroying the village in order to save it,” he wrote. “And none of this gets rid of the crime. The drug markets and violence continue to exist.”
Kennedy didn’t try to tackle the long-standing racial issues and their lengthy back story. The conversations that formed the basis for the DMI strategy were about drug markets.
It was hard for some on the Memphis team to believe that hardened drug dealers would respond when the threat of arrest, prison time, drive-by shootings and gang turf tripwires hadn’t discouraged them from the life.
Nevertheless, when they returned to Memphis, the planning began for several months of undercover drug buys in the Springdale area by the police Organized Crime Unit. For months, the officers bought repeatedly from dozens of street dealers in a two-mile radius of Springdale. And they recorded the drug buys on video – not just one buy but multiple buys.
Prosecutors reviewed the cases against more than 60 men and women and prosecuted 51 of them. Five were indicted on federal drug charges. Six others – five men and a woman – were the first candidates for the Memphis DMI program.
“It was taking a look at individuals who obviously were involved in drug trafficking, but a little more on the periphery – not an extensive drug record,” Gibbons said.
A few days after New Year’s Day, police descended on the Springdale area serving the arrest warrants and putting up a fresh crop of plywood with blue stenciling on the drug houses in the area. The neighborhood grapevine buzzed anew about the heavy police presence.
It was still buzzing when on the coldest day of the year – Jan. 8 – the Memphis group knocked on six doors in the Springdale area. The temperature never got near freezing and was in single digits part of the day.
No one inside the six houses knew they were coming. No one approaching the doorsteps knew what the reaction inside would be.
It was the first indication the six people involved and inside those homes had that they had sold drugs to undercover Memphis police officers and had been recorded on video making multiple drug sales to the officers.
The father of one of the six was among those who had been arrested.
When the DMI team knocked on his door, his grandmother answered.
“He did not want his grandmother to know why we were standing at the door,” Peggie Russell, the DMI coordinator and a University of Memphis researcher and community resource specialist, said. “He said, ‘It’s OK grandmother.’”
Howard Eddings, president of the Memphis Leadership Foundation, said the young man didn’t deny he was a drug dealer.
“He wanted to basically shut the door,” Eddings told The Memphis News. “She might not have known exactly what he was doing. She was an older lady. He didn’t like the fact that we were knocking on her door.”
He and the other five got a letter asking them to come to Springdale Baptist Church a few days later. If they came, the letter from Police Director Larry Godwin said they would not be prosecuted this time.
For Hughes the pledge was crucial. He wanted to be able to say, “I give you my word, you will not be arrested,” with certainty and conviction.
Five of the six showed up at Hughes’ church where the congregation and other community leaders were waiting in the sanctuary. On the walls were posters of the 51 defendants who weren’t getting the chance they were about to get. The posters included the possible prison sentences those defendants faced.
The five “guests” sat in a reserved front row with a friend or family member.
Their faces blurred in a video of the event, they listened as Assistant District Attorney Amy Weirich told them, “We’ve had it,” and called their names individually. “The Memphis Police Department is tired of picking up dead bodies in the street.”
Russell remembers some denying they had done anything wrong. Then police showed the video.
They watched video of themselves selling drugs numerous times to undercover police officers.
The woman’s denials stopped.
“She got caught during the first time. I don’t necessarily know that we believed it was the first time,” Eddings remembered. “But she was so embarrassed as a mom who had small kids who was put in the spotlight. … All of her junk is coming to the forefront.”
Russell said some of the others were telling those who came with them that they had no idea why they were summoned to the church.
“You’re sitting there and you’re telling your family member, ‘No, I didn’t do it,’” Russell said. “Then the tape started rolling … and you see yourself. It’s reality. You can’t hide it. I think that was a turning point for most of them.”
Hughes told the group of five that the church cared about them and was willing to help.
Some of his congregants spoke up too.
“Our congregants said, ‘Listen, we’re tired of watching you sell drugs. We’re tired of being afraid of coming in and out of our communities. We want our community back,’” Hughes recalled. “During the call in, some of our residents had an opportunity to look in their faces and say, ‘We are tired of the way you’ve been running down our communities. This used to be a wonderful community where people had pride, where people had hope. … Now a lot of us are afraid.’”
After the tough talk and the confrontation came a commitment to work with the five DMI candidates. Eddings emphasized there are no guarantees.
“We were careful not to promise them that we were going to get them jobs or that even if we could get them a job that it was going to pay them something comparable to what they were making on the street,” he said. ”We said the opposite. We can’t do that at all. But one thing we do know for sure. If you stop doing what you’re doing, you don’t go to jail.”
Russell, who gets much of the credit for pushing to give DMI a try and has become the program’s de facto coordinator, described the response as “something totally new.”
“It’s not about those five,” she said. “They are supposed to stay out of trouble for two years to make the necessary transition in their lives. But it’s really about the Hollywood Springdale community, changing the response of the community to open air drug sales.”
Eddings was surprised by the response.
“Most of these guys’ mamas know what they’re doing. But to know now that other mamas and other grandparents and other church leaders and the community have their eye on you, it has a different motivation,” he said. “Some of these guys are hardened. They’ve been doing it for a while and they’ve been out there on the streets. So, not much embarrasses them. But I could tell by looking at them and even some of the denials.”
The Memphis Leadership Foundation already works with convicted felons trying to make the difficult transition after prison. There are even fewer guarantees for those with a substantial prison record.
Marcus, who didn’t want his last name used, vented about how hard it’s been to find a legitimate job since he did prison time in 2006 for felony drug dealing.
“It’s not like people want to sell drugs,” he began. “On a lot of applications they are saying they don’t discriminate. They’re lying. … They’re ready to end the session right then. They might tear up the application in your face.”
If drug dealers like him bring blight to areas like Springdale and violence and a hard life for law-abiding citizens, Marcus said society has responded with its own brand of hardness.
“They ain’t reaching out anymore,” he said. “They expect for the world to be better because we’re building more jails. We’re putting more cops out. If somebody killed me today – the person who killed me, they want to put him in jail. But why put him in jail when y’all treating this man he killed like he’s a nobody anyway.”
Eddings said with criminal records or without, street level drug dealers have problems as they get older because they have no legitimate work history. He started to say there aren’t transferable skills before thinking about it.
“Actually, some of the skills do transfer. They’ve just got to get access,” he said. “It’s really a reshaping, a little bit more recognition that they need to deal with in terms of how they see themselves and how they can use those skills that they utilize on the streets to do something positive and pursue a legitimate way of life.”
The young man Eddings is working with seems not to have hit the wall that Marcus is at yet.
“He is simply trying to figure out how to put one foot in front of the other. They go from having some source of income to having no source of income,” Eddings told The Memphis News. “We’re convincing him now that getting his GED ought to be a decision that he ought to make. He’s been a little slow in that.”
Hughes said he would get the occasional dope boy showing up at his church before DMI.
“Very rarely. I did hear one or two stragglers you come across who say, ‘Yes, I do want to change.’ Often times, it’s usually because of a pending trial or they are in trouble,” he said. “Since that time, we’ve had a lot of people coming, wanting to change their lives.”
Gibbons is reviewing some neighborhoods where DMI might go next but he’s not saying where because of the undercover police work involved. He wants to see it replicated based on lessons learned in Memphis and he hopes to get a federal grant to hire a full-time coordinator.
The sixth man given a chance in the DMI program didn’t come to the church and was prosecuted. He pleaded guilty to five counts of selling drugs and was sentenced to four years in prison and fined $10,000. But the sentence was suspended and he was put on a diversion program.
Weirich recalled Criminal Court Judge John Fowlkes asking the man why he didn’t respond. He told Fowlkes, “It sounded too good to be true.” ...