VOL. 131 | NO. 133 | Tuesday, July 5, 2016
Mayor, DA Discuss Approach To Curb Crime
By Bill Dries
Much of the attention in local crime statistics this year goes to the jump in the city’s homicide rate.
But that rate pales in comparison to aggravated assaults.
From January through May, there were 492 aggravated assaults per 100,000 people in Memphis, according to statistics from the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission.
That compares to 10.4 murders per 100,000 over the same period in Memphis.
Most murders are encounters between or among people who knew each other, with no plan by one to kill the other.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has said homicides are a different problem from other violent crime categories because they are much more difficult to predict.
“They are very hard to predict,” Strickland said last week on the WKNO/Channel 10 program Behind The Headlines. “Because it’s hard to predict, it’s hard to prevent.”
Difficult but not impossible.
An aggravated assault may be a homicide that didn’t happen. But Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said such an attack in which everyone survives is still connected to the homicide rate.
“Oftentimes, today’s aggravated assault is going to be next week’s homicide,” said Weirich, who joined Strickland on the TV program. “It’s either going to be gang related or group related. While somebody is laying in the Med having been shot up because of the latest feud, somebody else that’s affiliated with that individual is going to go out and get some justice on the street.”
So she and others in the criminal justice system believe that if anti-crime efforts can drop the rate of aggravated assaults it will “pay big dividends in the homicide arena.”
But that takes time and Strickland has been blunt about the short-term outlook.
“It is a little bit frustrating because I can’t do much about it immediately,” he said. “But it also makes me more determined to keep on track with what we’re doing.”
Behind The Headlines, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.
Strickland took office in January and was greeted by an immediate spike in homicides and violent crime – up 22 percent over the first month of 2015 in major violent crimes in general, and a 47.1 percent spike from last year in homicides.
“January and February were really bad,” Strickland said. “But the changes that we’ve put in place – March, April, May and so far this month we are less than we were last year.”
Short term, Strickland points to a reorganization of the Memphis Police Department, even though the MPD remains at 2,000 officers and he wants to see 400 more officers in the ranks.
“We’ve reorganized the police force. We have more officers out on the street than we did when I took office on Jan. 1,” he said. “We’ve reorganized the Multi-Agency Gang (Unit), the Organized Crime Unit, really picking up the effort in those regards.”
Critics of the existing criminal justice system have argued that it is too easy for someone to get arrested in Memphis and then become mired in a system where they can’t pay court costs and fees associated with even a minor offense.
“It’s awfully hard to ask the police not to enforce the law,” Strickland said. “I can’t sit here and ask them not to do that.”
He said the phase-in of police body cameras already underway at the Crump Station police precinct could see an increase in arrests by police.
“More of those young people may get charged because it’s getting recorded. That kind of takes away some of the discretion that the policeman has,” he said.
Weirich said by the time cases arrive at her office, there are more opportunities for diversion or exits from the system.
“That’s why we have Drug Court and Veterans Court and Mental Health Court,” she said. “We probably spend more time and energy dismissing charges from individuals that have gotten caught up in the wrong end of the law. It’s the worst of the worst that we want to be able to swing the biggest hammer against.”
She also said the fines and fees that come with some relatively minor offenses are part of the punishment.
“We don’t have debtors prison, first and foremost,” Weirich said. “That fine and those court costs, that’s part of your sentence. A lot of our crimes in this state – it’s a mandatory fine that has to be paid. That’s part of your punishment if you will. The judges bend over backward and our office does, if you are making an effort.”
Weirich and Strickland have been involved in raising private donations in a fund that stands at $60,000 to pay the expungement fee for nonviolent first-time offenders who haven’t gotten in trouble for a five-year period. There is another local fund pursuing the same goal.
Meanwhile, state Rep. Raumesh Akbari sponsored a bill in the Tennessee Legislature this year that would have reduced the $450 expungement fee by $100. It didn’t pass.
The District Attorney General’s office gets $130.50 of each fee, part of a six-way split of the revenue in which $100 is a court clerk’s fee controlled by a separate state statute.
Weirich said the fee her office gets is for the background check and for running the process that gets expungement through the legal system.
“We don’t want people thinking they’ve got to hire an attorney to then come in and take advantage of this legislation that’s been passed,” she said. “Our office handles that.”
While there is some work to do on trust between citizens and cops, Strickland said public sentiment locally is firmly on the side of a greater police presence.
“When I go out to neighborhoods, they want police presence,” he said. “They want more patrols in the neighborhoods. I think the overwhelming majority of this city supports police and wants more.”