VOL. 124 | NO. 195 | Monday, October 5, 2009
A story from The Memphis News
On newsstands throughout the city
Police Director Larry Godwin
By Bill Dries
Memphis police director Larry Godwin speaks with officer J. Grafenreed, left, in the department’s Real Time Crime Center. The program uses statistical data to track and fight crime. -- PHOTOS BY LANCE MURPHEY
As the contenders for Memphis mayor have been on the road this month, another campaign has been under way.
Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin has been making the case for the signature strategy of his five years as top cop – Blue CRUSH.
Godwin keeps a full schedule of speaking engagements, and since 2007, he’s touted heavily the statistics-driven approach to fighting crime.
But these days Godwin is touting a program with an uncertain future. The winner of the Oct. 15 special mayoral election will determine whether Godwin remains as police director and whether Blue CRUSH, about to close out its third full year in use citywide, remains the dominant crime-fighting strategy.
Godwin is so closely identified with Blue CRUSH it’s hard to imagine the program surviving without him. Godwin told The Memphis News he would like to stay but no one is indispensable.
“For those that want to fire me, those things are out of my hands,” he said the week early voting started. “I’ve always said I’ll let my performance stand on its own. I think the leadership of this department is going in the right direction. I think we’ve made so much progress, especially in reducing crime.”
Godwin has heard the speculation about what might happen depending on who becomes mayor.
“I don’t think some of them have a clue what we’re doing,” Godwin said of the field of 25 candidates. “I think some of them do have a clue what we’re doing,” he added, referring to Memphis Mayor Pro Tem Myron Lowery and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr.
Memphis mayoral contender and attorney Charles Carpenter rolled out his crime platform early in the campaign. If elected, he’s pledged to fire Godwin and get rid of Blue CRUSH, as well as many special units such as the Organized Crime Unit and the long-term undercover work revived and pursued under Godwin.
“I think Blue CRUSH is reactionary,” Carpenter told The Memphis News. “It’s all after the fact. It’s all part of a pound of cure.”
He’s also blamed Blue Crush for low morale among patrol officers.
“Why would you just get in the middle of the police department and say, ‘I’m going to write your crime plan’?” Godwin asked rhetorically. “That’s kind of what Charles Carpenter did. That’s why I call it the one-hour crime plan.
If it took over one hour to put that together, something’s wrong. If a chief brought me that, I’d probably fire him.”
Carpenter is also an advocate of community policing, a strategy that involves putting several officers in a community with a crime problem to be more visible and to establish some kind of relationship with area residents. Cops on that kind of duty probably would not be the same ones taking calls from dispatchers.
Carpenter calls the strategy “an ounce of preven-tion.”
“We’ll go out and have a sweep and pick up 50 prostitutes or 50 low-level drug dealers,” Carpenter said of Blue CRUSH operations. “That’s a publicity stunt. We’re not impacting crime doing that. We have to be more effective and truthful and cooperative with the community so that they will understand exactly what the strategy is.”
Godwin is sensitive to the criticism that Blue CRUSH simply moves crime around.
“We don’t do saturations no more,” he told The Memphis News. “When we did saturations … you really disrupt the criminal in that particular area and you force it over here. Then when you went over there you pushed it over here. You’re not really suppressing crime for any length of time.”
Saturations have become the purview of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department. (See sidebar on Page 21.)
The sight of law enforcement officers in Kevlar vests kicking in doors does seem similar to the highest-profile Blue CRUSH operations – alleged drug houses shut down and their windows covered in plywood bearing a blue spray paint stencil of the Blue CRUSH logo.
But the logo and press conferences often get more attention than the long-term undercover work officers undertake before the doors are kicked in. Godwin’s roots are in such undercover work that goes beyond making drug buys Monday and arresting those who sold the drugs Wednesday or Thursday.
He came on the Memphis police force in 1973 as a narcotics officer and was among the undercover officers who worked in the strip clubs owned by kingpin Art Baldwin for years before the operation surfaced.
To Godwin, the difference between focusing on one area and Blue CRUSH is tracking the crime as it moves and coming up with a plan to greet the problem when it arrives in another ward.
“They’re anticipating movements,” Godwin said of precinct commanders who meet every Thursday with him and his deputy chiefs to discuss strategy and review crime statistics. “The difference between this and saturations is the patrolmen have taken ownership. The patrolmen have taken a heavy part in this. Without them it would never work.”
J.D. Sewell, president of the Memphis Police Association, paused for several seconds when asked what the union thinks of Blue CRUSH.
“The director’s high on it,” he said after the pause.
He acknowledged some of the union’s rank-and-file members don’t care for the approach, while some do. And there’s roughly the same split when it comes to Godwin.
“Some of our membership would love to see Director Godwin kicked out on his rear end. But an equal amount would like him to stay,” Sewell said. “I told the (mayoral) candidates, ‘It’s not our position – nor would I want it to be our position – for us to tell you who to pick for director. That’s the mayor’s decision.’”
The union membership was also split about down the middle on whom to endorse. The initial decision was to go with Lowery. But when union leaders announced their recommendation, Sewell said he heard from about half of the membership who favored Wharton. So the union endorsed both.
Godwin briefly considered joining the pack of candidates for mayor. But he passed, citing his career as a Memphis police officer who has risen in 36 years through the ranks and daunting department politics.
He served longer than any other police director during Willie Herenton’s tenure as mayor. Herenton appointed Godwin in August 2004 after dumping James Bolden from the job. Bolden was the fifth police director for Herenton in 13 years. Godwin was one of a tier of deputy chiefs when he was tapped. The deputy chiefs are just below the deputy director in the department’s chain of command.
Unlike any of his predecessors during the Herenton era, Godwin had Herenton’s enthusiastic support contin-uously. Herenton would even knock down speculation from the ranks that he was unhappy with Godwin.
Before Godwin, such speculation about a director was usually followed either by silence from Herenton or scathing public criticism from Herenton and then, inevitably, by a new police director.
About a year into his tenure, Godwin began hearing about the possibilities of a more statistics-driven approach to policing. He had it checked out and initially didn’t think it would work. He soon became a convert.
“Blue CRUSH is just putting officers in the right place at the right time on the right day using the data of crimes,” he said. “When a colonel at a precinct gets the data and they lay out a plan and then the next day or two they’re seeing a rash of burglaries or something else and it’s changing on them, they are able to adjust and move their manpower and do the things that they need to do.”
Wherever Godwin speaks, he begins by reporting the latest percentage crime drop.
Overall, crime in Memphis is down 11.2 percent from this time last year. But he says the more important measurement is from 2006 – a 17 percent decrease.
It was late in 2006 that Blue CRUSH went citywide as Godwin declared that every Memphis police officer was part of the effort. It was a bold statement that got little attention. Godwin had begun holding press conferences in which he repeatedly said the police meant business. The crime stats weren’t improving and Godwin was beginning to sound like a broken record.
Cops who spend any time beyond a fleeting moment in the media spotlight are pegged as camera hounds by some elements in the department. It’s been that way for decades and some police directors have rotated duty as media spokesman to officers as a way to avoid having to endure the term and other less flattering descriptions.
Godwin resolved that as director he would trumpet the results if Blue CRUSH worked, and he resolved that the department would not wait for the media to find out such items as corrupt cops, badly handled situations and general foul-ups. He would tell the media about any “headaches.”
Memphis police officers Lt. D.L. Barham, center, and Tim Reynolds, right, stop to question George Burton near Jefferson and Montgomery avenues. The pair were working a Blue Crush detail on thefts from motor vehicles.
“If you got one, call me before it hits the media,” he recalled advising his deputy chiefs and colonels.
A marked man
Blue CRUSH began to work statistically. But there were still perils in Godwin being such a cheerleader for the strategy that are unique to fighting crime.
For instance, Godwin was able to tell City Council members this month that during the Sept. 6 University of Memphis Tiger football opener against Ole Miss only one car break-in was reported at the Mid-South Fairgrounds. Two occurred at the Southern Heritage Classic football game on Sept. 11 and one car was stolen. Police did it without an increase in manpower.
But to the three people who got back to their cars to find shattered windows and the person who got back to his car to find it wasn’t there, the statistics don’t matter. For them, crime is up.
City Council member and mayoral candidate Wanda Halbert, one of Godwin’s fiercest critics, says a fear factor has to be taken into account in judging the validity of statistics.
“When your city leadership is telling you that crime is going down, but the citizens feel like crime is way up – how do you dispute what the city is telling you?” she said. “The two are just not mixing. Somewhere the truth is not being told.”
Godwin said since late 2006, he’s used the same criteria to measure whether crime is up or down. He’s had problems with the way FBI annual reports count crime – reports in which Memphis has not fared well. Godwin said his changes have included counting a robbery of several people as one crime instead of a separate crime for each victim.
Lowery moved quickly once he took office to say he wanted to work with Godwin. It wasn’t a guarantee. But by late September, Lowery was telling those at a candidate forum in Raleigh, “As long as crime continues to go down, Mr. Godwin is safe.”
“I understand what Mr. Carpenter said about morale,” he continued. “But crime is down – 7,300 fewer victims of crime this year than last year. I know that doesn’t do any good for those of you who have recently been burglarized. … But this does show that crime is down.”
Mayoral contender Detric Stigall, sitting next to Lowery, said it wasn’t fair to ask if Godwin will stay or go.
“It’s not a fair question because apparently you have a man who is doing a good job from a statistical standpoint,” the city parks services administrator and first-time candidate said. “The one thing we all know is that numbers don’t lie. If his numbers have decreased … then why would you want to fire him?”
“Numbers say whatever you want them to say,” Halbert replied. But Halbert also said every division director in city government would have to reapply for their jobs if she is elected mayor.
Wharton told The Memphis News it would be “inappropriate” to decide now if Godwin remains as police director.
“You will set the criteria at the time once you get there. … If he’s the person to take us there, then that’s who we stick with,” he said. “But it would be inappropriate until you’ve done your thorough assessment and said where do we want to go? One person doesn’t do that. You have to pull the community together, members of the council. … If this is the best employee, he gets it. If not, we open it up. … Never get into a flat yes or no. That’s the way I do business.”
The quick move to the ballot in the mayor’s race as well as the size of the field – 25 candidates – has made crime seem a less urgent issue than it was in the 2007 mayor’s race. But at candidate forums across the city, two or three crime-related questions usually come up for the candidates, more than any other category.
At the Memphis Democratic Club forum at LeMoyne Owen College earlier this month, four of the contenders – Lowery, Carpenter, Chumney and Halbert – were asked if they would continue Blue CRUSH if elected mayor. Lowery was the only yes. Chumney was a maybe and Carpenter and Halbert said no.
“No, it is not helping,” Halbert told The Memphis News after the forum. “I have police officers who have expressed a number of concerns that it’s a specifically targeted program that’s aimed at putting individuals through the justice system.”
Wharton said he wants to see Blue CRUSH expanded – although perhaps in a different direction than Godwin has contemplated. Wharton views crime as a health issue.
“It is a part of a good strategy. I would like to extend it to a phase before Blue CRUSH,” said Wharton, who is a former Shelby County public defender and defense attorney. “Just as we’ve been able to map out where crime is occurring, we can also map out the conditions that are giving rise to that – broken households. If there are other family members who have gone into Juvenile Court or Criminal Court, there’s a good chance, sadly, that other siblings will follow.”
Melvin Burgess was Herenton’s first police director.
Burgess, a career police officer before being appointed police director, is a fan of Blue CRUSH. But he’s a bigger advocate for the community policing Carpenter favors.
“Blue CRUSH is good. That part of enforcement is fine. They do a lot of undercover work. They do a lot of stings. You have to have enforcement,” he told The Memphis News. “Short term is get right on them. Long term is community policing.”
But such coexistence depends on having more police officers. There’s a force to take calls from dispatchers and respond to things that just happen, and then there are cops who remain in a community.
“The only thing they are to do is stay there and engage,” Burgess said.
During his tenure, from 1992-1994, Burgess put the first community policing force in the old Hurt Village public housing project on the border between Downtown and North Memphis. It’s the area now called Uptown since Hurt Village was demolished to make way for the mixed-use, mixed-income community.
“We started out in the Hurt village initiatives and it was easy to handle. We had one or two officers and we had all of these social agencies that we brought in. It’s like ‘weed and seed,’” Burgess said, recalling the name of a popular federally funded law enforcement initiative that endured from the late 1980s into the 1990s. “You take 20 people in and weed it and when it’s done, you leave five in.”
Toward the abrupt end of his tenure in May 1994, Burgess had expanded community policing into the Binghampton area of the city.
“We need to finish the job,” he said. “Community policing is manpower-intensive. What we have now is officers in a neighborhood that has been targeted. But these officers also answer calls for service.”
‘Luck of the draw’
Godwin agrees that Blue CRUSH needs to be “tweaked” and expanded. But he has different ideas about the direction.
For several years now, he’s traveled to Nashville with District Attorney General Bill Gibbons to lobby state legislators for a package of bills. The bills include longer guaranteed prison sentences for violent criminals, crimes committed by a group of people and by repeat offenders.
The legislation has met with mixed success because of disagreements Gibbons and Godwin have with Gov. Phil Bredesen over how much the laws would cost the state. Bredesen has said longer prison sentences mean a higher cost to run prisons. Gibbons and Godwin argue that the prospect of longer sentences will deter criminals and not cost as much.
Godwin also wants to expand the use of cameras and other technology, including social networking efforts that involve information relayed to and from police via a program called Cyberwatch.
“I think the technology side is going to make a big difference in our future,” Godwin said. “I think the more cameras you add, the more technology with license plate readers, the more technology we’re able to supply our officers … I think that’s where you’re going to see the technology side work with Blue CRUSH.”
The technology he mentioned includes mobile cameras that beam police an overheard view either at the Real Time Crime Center opened last year or via raised platforms with a police officer watching from above and coordinating police movements.
The license plate reader is a camera atop a patrol car that can read license plates around it and show a police officer a computer screen readout of any outstanding warrants on the owners of the cars.
Godwin tested it out during a drive around a Hickory Hill apartment complex and was overwhelmed by the hits. He wasn’t overwhelmed when the manufacturer tried to sell the department on three cameras atop one patrol car to be multidirectional. Godwin and his staff opted instead for one camera on a rotating platform.
There have been six sets of shifts in the upper ranks of the department during Godwin’s tenure. It is difficult to gauge how unusual that is because promotions have been blocked periodically for years at a time because of litigation over the testing process. Some of the changes have resulted from a new rank – colonel.
The colonels usually head what used to be called the precincts. Under Godwin, they are now called stations.
Godwin said his precinct colonels and deputy chiefs run the weekly Blue CRUSH meetings.
“I ran those meetings for a while, but I felt like I needed to. I’ve taken more of a back seat role,” Godwin said. “They are the successors. They need to know and they need to learn. I have some young chiefs up there. Other than the deputy director, I don’t have a chief on this floor with a year’s experience – real young chiefs. … Your successor should be on this floor.”
Herenton, several times, declared his next police director in the series would be the result of a national search. But that never happened and his choice always came from the ranks of the department.
Godwin said a national search would probably mean a $60,000 or more pay boost from the $126,505 a year he makes as police director and a director who stays a few years and then moves on to the next city.
“I’m not fond of outside,” he said. “You’ve got great folks here. If you do a national search, you’ll need to raise the bar financially.”
If he continues as police director after the election, Godwin said it isn’t with an eye toward reaching double digits.
“No one is going to do this job 10 or 15 or 20 years. Your body won’t let you do that – your stress level and the things that happen to you,” he said.
But he was just as adamant that the change of directors every two to three years before his tenure wiped out any chance of continuity in a coherent crime strategy.
“We had no crime plan. It was the luck of the draw and let’s see what happens. … It was all reaction.”