Crime numbers may be the most politically volatile set of statistics elected officials can debate or rely on.
Memphis Police Department Organized Crime Unit officers hold stencils that are used to board up and label houses in the department’s Blue CRUSH program.
(Daily News File Photo: Lance Murphey)
The statistics mean little to someone who has been a crime victim. But they are a way of validating whether public money is being spent effectively. On the other hand, how crimes are counted always will be debated.
Combine that with the traditional tension between city councils and mayors about the budgets the councils approve and the changes mayors make to them during the fiscal year.
What you get is the simmering controversy over the Memphis Police Department’s Blue CRUSH strategy that boiled to the surface this week.
The statistics-driven approach to focusing police resources on crime hot spots credited with a six-year reduction in overall crime and violent crime in Memphis came to an end with the 2012 numbers. The Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission is concerned about what it sees as a reduction in the use of Blue CRUSH.
And some Memphis City Council members said Tuesday, Jan. 8, that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. was touting the results of Blue CRUSH and claiming it as a priority as he cut the funding that paid for the police overtime essential to the operations.
“There is no Blue CRUSH line item,” Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong began as he told the council that he made an “executive decision” to divert some of the money for overtime to other items like hepatitis shots for officers and a fingerprint system.
“Those dollars were going to be needed down the road,” Armstrong added, saying he has found money from other line items to fund some Blue CRUSH operations and officers took compensatory time off instead of taking overtime pay.
“You are taking the fall for something you shouldn’t be taking the fall for,” council member Janis Fullilove told Armstrong after he made his initial case for why Blue CRUSH operations hadn’t really been reduced.
Council member Jim Strickland agreed with Fullilove. Armed with documents including memos from now retired Deputy Police Chief Joe Scott, Strickland showed there were fewer Blue CRUSH operations in 2012 as Wharton was saying in budget presentations that the administration believed in and would continue the approach. Some of the budget book quotes from the last two fiscal years included Wharton specifically saying the city would find the money to continue the operations.
Strickland had documents showing overtime funds used for Blue CRUSH were suspended and cut off from reaching the precinct level at the start of the 2011-2012 fiscal year – what he called “a clear reduction.”
Police brass under Armstrong’s leadership submitted a $245 million budget proposal to the administration but the administration’s final draft of the overall city budget plan included a $238 million police budget, according to Strickland.
And he added when police brass asked to have the overtime restored, the administration refused.
“He did cut it,” Strickland said. “I think the questions that need to be asked is why did Mayor Wharton dismantle Blue CRUSH, a major part of our success in lowering our crime rate? Why did Mayor Wharton tell the council and the public that Blue CRUSH was operating in the same manner it had when it wasn’t operating in the same manner?”
But city Chief Administrative Officer George Little said that is not the case.
“Blue CRUSH has not been dismantled. … There has been and there continues and there will be a Blue CRUSH program,” he said. “There are a plethora of concentrated enforcement programs whether they be Blue CRUSH details paid for out of overtime, comp time, the Organized Crime Unit and traffic details. To say or suggest that Blue CRUSH has somehow or other been dismantled does not properly represent the facts on the ground.”
Traffic saturations paid for normally with state and federal grant funding for the overtime traditionally have not been considered Blue CRUSH operations.
Little also said the administration could restore some overtime funding to police during a mid-fiscal year evaluation of revenues and expenditures that is a normal part of the budget cycle for city and county governments.