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VOL. 123 | NO. 63 | Monday, March 31, 2008

Godwin Seeks Support in Light of Pitchfork's Success

By Bill Dries

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MORE JAIL TIME: Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin, left, along with Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, are pushing for bills in Nashville to keep convicted felons in prison longer. -- Photo By Bill Dries

Even Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin described it as "another roundup."

Before dawn Thursday, officers in the Organized Crime Unit put on their public face - bulletproof vests, badges, guns and black clothing with "Police" and "OCU" in very large lettering - and began shutting down alleged drug houses in different parts of the city. They also served search warrants and arrested a group of 50 in the latest set of indictments on drug and prostitution charges, this time from a three-month undercover investigation.

The series of arrests came under the heading of Operation Pitchfork. The pitchfork is one of several symbols used by the Gangster Disciples street gang. Half of those charged have been identified by police as gang members, most of them Gangster Disciples.

Godwin also expressed some frustration that many of the accused have been in this situation before.

"We're dealing with the same ones over and over again. Five percent of the criminals committing 50 percent of the crime," Godwin said as he held up a notebook several inches thick containing the criminal records of eight Pitchfork defendants.

Levester Grayer is a Gangster Disciple, Godwin said. He has been convicted of eight violent felonies - four counts of aggravated robbery, two counts of aggravated assault and two counts of especially aggravated kidnapping.

"He was sentenced to 64 years in prison. We just bought dope from him. We just locked him up. Just recently he tried to run over an undercover Memphis police officer and shots were fired," Godwin said.

State concerns

Operation Pitchfork surfaced at the end of a week in which Godwin and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons were in Nashville lobbying state legislators to support a package of four crime bills. Three of the bills are aimed at more prison time for violent crimes and repeat offenders.

The fourth is a bill that adds extra time for street crimes committed by groups of criminals. That round-up hasn't been as successful.

The hesitancy hasn't been over the words in the bill. It's the notation from state budget officials added to every piece of legislation - called the "fiscal note." The Bredesen administration has balked at some of the proposals because of the belief that longer prison sentences mean more people in prison and the need for more prisons, which cost more money.

Gibbons and Godwin argued last week that in the long term the legislation would deter crime and mean a smaller prison population.

Gibbons, who has disputed the math used for some of the fiscal notes, also displayed some frustration with what he said is a relatively small cost that amounts to one-tenth of 1 percent of Bredesen's state budget proposal for the new fiscal year.

"The reason state government was created was to provide for the peace and safety of the people. I would submit that state government is not doing an adequate job of that," Gibbons said. "And in the scheme of a $28 billion budget, you would think they could figure out a way to pass this legislation and fund it."

Finding other funding solutions

The undercover operations that are the less public side of Godwin's restructuring of the Memphis Police Department are funded with money returned from seizures in the operations, either cash or proceeds from the auction of seized items. Under Godwin's leadership, OCU has resumed them with a vengeance in the last year.

By his count, 777 suspects have been indicted over the last 13 months on charges from the undercover operations. Police and prosecutors have a 98 percent conviction rate on those cases, Godwin said, with more than a fourth of those charged being gang members.

That doesn't count 2,000 more arrests of gang members during that time in Operation Blue C.R.U.S.H., the statistics-driven targeting of crime hot spots.

"We've locked up more gang members in the last 14 months than in the history of the Memphis Police Department. When we were Metro Gang, you can't even compare those numbers," Godwin said, referring to the joint Shelby County Sheriff's-MPD unit that he pulled out of. "We were totally not doing what we should be doing. We were failing in that effort.
What brought it back was our undercover program. I can have uniformed officers stop a gang member. What am I going to get out of that?"

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