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VOL. 125 | NO. 222 | Monday, November 15, 2010

B.I.G. Idea

Initiative unites businesses, police in fight against crime

By Tom Wilemon

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With crime on a downward spiral in Memphis, a new initiative seeks to amplify this trend by forging partnerships between business leaders and police precincts.

Memphis Police Department bike patrol officers Cory Leatherwood and Dan Cordero of the West Precinct patrol the medical center district. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

Business Interest Group (B.I.G.) Uniting for a Better Memphis is asking people to step outside their office walls to learn what’s really happening in nearby neighborhoods. Likewise, precinct commanders are coming into conference rooms to present crime statistics and answer questions.

“It’s like a neighborhood watch for businesses,” said Johnny Pitts, chief manager of Lipscomb & Pitts Insurance LLC. “We feel like if we begin to communicate more openly with our various precincts, that should help reduce crime.”

But the initiative is actually much more than a watch. It looks for ways to help neighborhoods improve, and it strives to eradicate the perception that Memphis is a crime-ridden city.

B.I.G. leaders contend this image is based on the past.

“I’ve seen crime start to take a turn,” said Lloyd Phelps, president of Phelps Security.

The statistics back up his contention. Overall crime this year from January through July was down 28.7 percent from the same period four years ago, according to the University of Memphis Center for Community Criminology and Research. B.I.G. leaders believe this positive trend can be accelerated with active community engagement. They are taking cues from Midtown Security Community.

Formed in 2008, the organization has raised more than $10,000 to support police bike patrols in Midtown, set up an e-mail alert system, put up a blog, provide crime prevention tips and showcase charities working to solve the social problems that spawn crime.

Col. Lori Bullard, the commander of the police department’s Union Station Precinct, regularly contributes to the blog with information about problem areas and arrests.

“Knowledge is power, as they say,” said Peggy Williamson, who has led Midtown Security Community since its founding. “That’s a very significant principle that I think we’ve operated on. I think we’ve seen results from that. We’ve been very clear that we don’t share rumors. We only share documented, vetted information from the police department.”

Billy Garrett, who commanded the Union Station Precinct until he retired in April, still attends Midtown Security Community’s monthly meetings. Now an employee of Phelps Security, Garrett is leading the effort to set up B.I.G. partnerships.

B.I.G. is putting its initial focus on Southeast Memphis, where it has had three organizing meetings.

At the last meeting, the commanders of the Mount Moriah Station and the Ridgeway Station precincts sat across the table from representatives of Thomas & Betts Corp., CBRE Richard Ellis Memphis, Industrial Developments International and other companies.

The commanders provided statistics on crime and shared information about prevention efforts. The group also heard presentations from Olliette Murry-Drobot with the Southeast Memphis Community Development Corp. and Phyllis Betts, an urban affairs professor with the University of Memphis. Betts spoke about how the area had transformed in a couple of decades from apartment complexes for young single professionals into family housing.

Formed in 2008, the organization has raised more than $10,000 to support police bike patrols in Midtown, set up an e-mail alert system, put up a blog, provide crime prevention tips and showcase charities working to solve the social problems that spawn crime.

Col. Sharonda Hampton, commander of the Mount Moriah Station, told how she wanted to set up bicycle patrols but officers could not afford to pay for bike gear from their uniform allowances. Lt. Col. J.E. Kirkwood stressed the need for volunteers to tutor children and for business leaders to engage youths about career opportunities.

“Hopefully, you’ve heard something that you want to plug into,” Garrett said. “If you need a little help or a little prodding, I’d be glad to plug you into some of these things. We’re talking about tutoring programs. We’re talking about internships, job opportunities, cleanups. I’ve just heard a gazillion.”

Garrett is heading the initiative at the urging of Phelps, who took note of Garrett’s work with Midtown Security Community.

“We service that area,” Phelps said. “I see police officers driving down the street and people waving at them. That’s something I haven’t seen in a long time. I see that connectivity growing back. I see that invisible fence being torn down.”

Crime is not as bad in Memphis as most city residents think and is much less a threat than outsiders believe, Phelps said. Typically, businesses band together when there’s an uptick in criminal activity. But by capitalizing on a downward trend, Memphians can change neighborhoods and improve the city’s image, he said.

“Over the years, I’ve seen bad media reports crucify Memphis and I’ve seen how our image has changed,” Phelps said. “It used to be one of the most beautiful cities to a no-one-wants-to-live-here type attitude. I think it is a false misrepresentation of what Memphis really is. There’s some opportunity here.”

The goals espoused by B.I.G dovetail those of Operation: Safe Community. Established in 2005, Operation: Safe Community has set out to make Memphis one of safest communities in the nation by the end of 2011.

The organization identified 15 strategies. The first strategy to “deploy police officers based upon sound data and research” was launched by the Memphis Police Department in 2005 with Blue CRUSH (Crime Reduction Utilizing Statistical History).”

The police department uses real time data to identify trends then beefs up patrols in the problem areas. Richard Janikowski, the criminology professor from the University of Memphis who helped police set up Blue CRUSH, is also advising B.I.G.

“Memphis has an opportunity. We’re a city that does an amazing job of beating itself up,” said Janikowski, who stressed that Memphis has to start telling its own story.

B.I.G. leaders are taking talking points from Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr., who has called on Memphians to defend the city against negative press, such as Forbes ranking Memphis No. 3 on its “America’s Most Miserable Cities” index.

“We’re going to call Memphis a city of choice,” Garrett said. “We have to believe that in our hearts before we can go out and sell Memphis to the rest of the world.”

Betts, a sociologist and expert on urban affairs, said more than civic pride is at stake. It also has a huge economic impact.

“The misuse of data is critical and sometimes disastrous for our reputation,” she said. “If you’re looking for tenants in your commercial areas, if retailers are looking for customers in their stores, then getting the story straight in terms of quality of life is critical.”

Ironically, the police department’s transparency about crimes and its push for people to report all crimes, no matter how small, through Blue CRUSH may be fodder for the “misuse of data.”


Business Interest Group (B.I.G.) Uniting for a Better Memphis is still in its formative stages. Having held only three meetings, the group is looking for other business partners to join the initiative and share ideas.
The next meeting for B.I.G. will be 10:30 a.m. Dec. 1 at Thomas & Betts. To sign up for the meeting, call Billy Garrett or Lloyd Phelps of Phelps Security at 365-9728.

“If it’s not reported, we can’t pattern it,” he said. “We don’t see it on the maps.”

Janikowski noted that while many consider Atlanta to be the “jewel of the South” it has a higher violent crime rate than Memphis. Yet, crime is often perceived as being a bigger problem in Memphis. He contends the community leaders in Atlanta are largely silent about crime issues.

Although Memphis has experienced a reduction in crime, there’s still a great deal of work to be done. Commercial burglaries have caused many businesses to wall themselves off from the neighborhoods where they are located.

Precinct commanders from Midtown to Southeast Memphis say one of their biggest obstacles is the revolving jail doors for burglars. When Hampton noticed an uptick in the Mount Moriah Station precinct, she knew the reason.

“Somebody got out of jail,” she told her officers. “I don’t know who. We need to lock this burglar up.”

Once the burglar was apprehended, the criminal activity returned to normal levels. Lt. Col. James Kirkwood asked businesses to put pressure on judges to enact stiff sentences for repeat burglars.

“OK, we did our job,” he said. “You all need to go to the courtroom and be there to let the judge know that you are serious about this issue. Here is where you come into play.”

But police also want business leaders to engage neighborhood residents and build good will.

“Help bring down the myth in the minds of the young people that the business community doesn’t care,” Kirkwood said.

Col. Anthony Rosser, commander of the Ridgeway Station precinct, joined in with Hampton, commander of the Mount Moriah Station precinct, to ask for help with bicycle patrols. Williamson said bike patrols in Midtown have allowed police to monitor areas inaccessible to squad cars, such as tight alleys and Overton Park.

“Bike patrols certainly didn’t replace anything,” she said. “It just added another tool for police to use.”

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