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VOL. 131 | NO. 257 | Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Memphis Adopts Version of Ceasefire

By Bill Dries

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A gun and gang violence program pioneered in Boston 20 years ago is coming to Memphis in the wake of a record year for homicides.

What is known nationally as Operation Ceasefire will be called the “Group Violence Initiative” in Memphis, said Memphis-Shelby Crime Commission president Bill Gibbons on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

Bill Gibbons

“It’s being driven by gangs, guns, drugs and domestic violence,” Gibbons said of the city homicide rate that spiked in January and February and will shatter the 1993 homicide record with a week left in the year. “Those are the four factors and you can’t really separate those four entirely. They go together.”

The Group Violence Initiative in Memphis will be aimed in particular at gang members.

“It’s saying to those gang members …we’re going to come after you if you don’t change your violent behavior,” Gibbons said of the basic philosophy. “We are going to do everything we can to hold you accountable. But we are also going to provide you with a different avenue if you want to change your lifestyle.”

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

The Boston program includes “call-ins,” or what begin as confrontations and challenges to gang members in areas where there has been recent violence. In Boston, there was an immediate drop in homicides after the first call-in.

The concept isn’t foreign to Memphis. The Shelby County District Attorney General’s office, when Gibbons was district attorney general, mounted a church-based “Drug Market Intervention” program in 2010 working with churches in the Springdale Street area.

Drug dealers were recorded selling drugs in the area numerous times to undercover police officers. They were called before a church congregation, shown the tape by prosecutors and police and offered help in getting out of the drug-dealing business.

Under District Attorney General Amy Weirich, court orders forbidding gang members from associating in public in certain areas established in the court action have included options for gang members to leave gangs if they wish.

Josh Spickler

Josh Spickler of the criminal justice reform group “Just City” said the Group Violence Initiative should be about helping with jobs.

“When you have a job you have hope and you have a reason not to engage in a lot of this behavior we are talking about,” he said. “While this criminal justice system can work to provide opportunity and provide these carrots and sticks, it also in many, many more ways and much more effectively, quite frankly, keeps you from getting jobs, keeps you from reentering this community in a meaningful way.”

Worth Morgan

Memphis City Council member Worth Morgan said the carrot-and-stick approach is a necessary balance that extends to the public’s expectations about the effect of law-and-order policies.

“There do need to be those goals and that chance for hope and reform,” he said. “But at the same time, another one of the goals is we have a responsibility – I think the No. 1 responsibility – for people to feel safe and people to be safe.”

The balance can be difficult.

The city of Baltimore moved toward a Ceasefire program in 2014 and put it into action a year later, seeing an immediate reduction in homicides. But the director of the program resigned less than year into the program citing a lack of funding, and police brass that said he did not understand the program. That’s according to internal memos published by The Baltimore Sun newspaper last year.

The director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research termed the Baltimore version of Ceasefire “bare bones” and “not even resembling the program model,” according to the Sun.

In the Memphis efforts, there is still debate about whether the general goal of beefing up Memphis Police ranks from the current 2,000 to 2,400 is the best course of action.

“The efficient use of those officers is really what you are talking about,” Spickler said. “The mayor (Jim Strickland) is calling for additional officers to address the problems of violent crime, to address the problem of homicides. That’s where I think we disagree. I don’t think that’s a viable approach to that problem.”

Gibbons and Morgan disagree.

“We firmly believe that there is a correlation between the number of police officers we put on the street in a data-driven way, so we’re putting them in the right place at the right time, and the crime rate,” Gibbons said.

He points to a 24 percent decrease in violent crime locally in 2011 compared to 2006. And Gibbons said it is no coincidence that was the year the police force had more than 2,400 officers.

“And we were deploying those officers in a data-driven way, which is very important,” he added. “Now, we’re down below 2,000 officers and we’ve had to rely on overtime to have the kind of coverage that we need. We’re short in virtually every precinct. Paying overtime to officers is not the answer. It is simply increasing the stress level that officers face on a day-to-day basis.”

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