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VOL. 10 | NO. 6 | Saturday, February 4, 2017

Body Count

Anatomy of a record homicide year in Memphis

By Bill Dries

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A day at a time, Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has been writing the names of those who have been murdered in a notebook he keeps with him since he became mayor in January 2016.

When five people, two of them 15 years old, died violently the weekend that much of the world’s attention was on protest marches and the new administration in Washington, Strickland was getting updates on the latest surge in violence.

And when the work week began Jan. 23, he reacted.

“The weekend’s violence came from cowards who are using weapons instead of words to resolve conflict – and it has to stop,” his written statement began. “My message to any of you who illegally carry or use guns: You are the problem in Memphis. You are hurting our efforts to bring jobs and opportunity to our community. But you will not succeed in tearing us down. I repeat: You will not succeed in tearing us down.”

The statement was borne out of a familiar and time-honored frustration.

“Just the personal outrage I felt over the weekend,” Strickland said when asked what prompted his reaction. “The tragic loss of life.”

There may also have been some frustration that the long-term changes Strickland has outlined, changes others before him in elected positions have advocated, are just that – long-term changes that take time to work if they have worked in the first place.

“We need people to step up to be mentors, to help people learn to read so that young people don’t feel that tug to join a gang,” Strickland said. “If a child is mentored and knows how to read all the way through school and graduates high school, the chance they join a gang is so small that we can put the gangs out of business.”

Meanwhile, Strickland’s choice of police director, Michael Rallings, vented some of his frustration with a 37-page Power Point presentation that offered charts, graphs and maps that documented the city’s record 2016 homicide count multiple ways.

Part of the 37-page presentation Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings is using to explain the city’s record homicide count in 2016 details where the homicides happened.

(Memphis Police Department)

“I’m coming out swinging,” Rallings told the Memphis Rotary Club on Jan. 10 as he made the presentation. “I’m going to bring the fire.”

The statistics show that of the city’s 228 homicides in 2016:

• 195 were murders by the classic definition of someone intentionally taking the life of someone else, either in a premeditated way or at the spur of the moment without premeditation. These “criminal homicides” accounted for 92 percent of all homicides in the city.

• 19 were justifiable homicides in which authorities judged the person who died was killed by someone defending themselves. Justifiable homicides accounted for 8 percent of the city’s total homicides in 2016. Five each were in the Old Allen and Mount Moriah precincts.

• 8 were people who had been wounded in some way earlier, but died from their injuries in 2016.

• 4 were unborn children.

Rallings takes the position that the 195 murders are the problem to be dealt with.

But his recent deeper dive into the numbers doesn’t yield any easy or clear answers. And Rallings has his quarrels with some of the numbers as other numbers point to specific directions and places.

• A total of 30 homicides, or 13 percent of all homicides, were committed during robberies. Two of the 30 robbery homicides were instances where the robbery victim killed the suspected robber and the death was ruled justifiable homicide.

• Not a single robbery homicide was reported in the Old Allen, North Main and Crump precincts; lethal robberies were focused in the south and southeast parts of Memphis.

• Domestic violence incidents accounted for 32 homicides in 2016, 13 percent of all homicide victims. There were none in the Ridgeway precinct. There were seven in the Old Allen precinct.

• 72 homicide victims were gang members, or 33 percent of all homicide victims. None of them died in the Appling Farms precinct. There were 17 in the Raines precinct.

• 37 homicide suspects were gang members, accounting for 15 percent of all homicides.

• 22 homicides were attributed by police to “gang motives” accounting for 10 percent of all homicide victims.

A majority of the city’s homicide victims in 2016 were age 25 or older.

(Memphis Police Department)

Rallings believes gangs play a bigger role in homicides than the numbers might indicate. The gang label might conjure images of rival gang members as soldiers carrying out orders of gang leaders related to turf and possession of drug houses and street corners.

And there are gang rivalries to be sure.

“We said there is no way that the gang homicides are only 18 to 20 percent. It makes no sense,” Rallings said of the change in the way the department counts gang-related murders and the difficulty in determining that.

“Most of the time the only place where gang members really ’fess up and say who they are is when they are booked into 201 Poplar,” he said. “They don’t want to end up in a pod with the wrong gang.”

Police and investigators have seen ample evidence of gang members from rival organizations combining their efforts. And violence among gang members may have nothing to do with the goals of the larger organizations.

A break down in the hierarchy and reach of street gang leadership has been blamed in part for the city of Chicago’s dramatically higher homicide spike in 2016.

• 169 of the Memphis homicide victims in 2016 were black men, 74 percent of all homicide victims. 31 were black women, 14 were white men and 4 were white women.

• With 30 percent of the 2016 homicides cases still open or unsolved, the racial breakdown of the suspects charged is incomplete.


To former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton, these are the numbers that matter.

“This wave of crime is a black problem,” Herenton said at Strickland’s New Year’s Eve prayer breakfast in Whitehaven, touching off the kind of debate that hasn’t been heard since Herenton gave his last speech at an end-of-the-year gathering a decade earlier.

“I’ll just go on record as saying I think it was rather irresponsible of our former mayor to say that this crime problem is a black problem and leave it at that – as if black people are going to have to solve this,” Memphis City Council member Janis Fullilove said at the first council meeting of 2017.

That is precisely what Herenton said, applauding involvement by white citizens but saying that black citizens – specifically black men – are the ones most likely to change mindsets and curb violent responses.

(Memphis Police Department)

Herenton is also not a big fan of deep and prolonged dives into analysis.

“We have some people in critical leadership roles, they don’t have a clue what is going on in the streets,” he said after the New Year’s Eve speech. “We’re good at defining the problem. You hear a lot of them talk adverse childhood experiences, trauma. We know they live in trauma. … But after you acknowledge their human condition, the question is what do you do about it. We must address generational poverty.”

Rallings and Strickland don’t quarrel with Herenton on his observation or endorse it. They see his call for 10,000 black men to volunteer in a specific and small set of organized efforts to combat the root causes of the violence as part of a larger effort.

“I’m ready for a new path,” Strickland said, referring to the name Herenton has given his call.

But Strickland and Rallings do argue that the violence is a problem for all Memphians in a city where safety and danger have long been defined block by block.

Rallings has said the root cause of the violence isn’t as simple as the city’s historically high percentage of citizens living in poverty.

“Poverty is only one of those issues,” he told Rotarians. “Why are my Latino brothers not killing each other? Why? Our Latino men, they are the most impoverished. It’s not neck and neck. … I need you to help me figure that out.”

• Just about a third (31 percent) of homicide victims are between the ages of 20 and 26.

• 41.2 percent of homicide victims were ages 31 and over.

• 16 of the homicide victims were 29 years old and another 13 were 23 years old.

• Those under 18 accounted for 21 homicide victims.

• Of the 241 homicide suspects, 75 were unknown. Of the remaining 166, 74 were between the ages of 19 and 24.

• There were five separate homicide incidents on Jan. 9 and there were six across Aug. 25 and 26. There were 11 days with three homicide incidents occurring, including the two dates in August.

• There were five homicide incidents with two victims each and there were two homicide incidents with three victims each.

• Of the 228 homicides in Memphis in 2016, 159 were solved by police for a “solve rate” of 70 percent. The remaining 69 have not been solved to date, accounting for 30 percent of the cases.

• 115 of the homicides were on Mondays (40), Saturdays (39) and Fridays (36).

• 23 homicides were committed in the 11 p.m. hour and another 15 at 1 a.m., with 14 each at the midnight hour, 7 p.m., 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.

• The Frayser 38127 ZIP code had the most homicide victims in 2016 with 26, followed by 24 in Oakhaven/Parkway Village and 19 each in the Whitehaven and old Defense Depot ZIPs.

Ike Griffith, head of the city’s Office Youth Services, is among those searching for answers to the violence. One of his former students was murdered just before the end of 2016.

(Memphis News/Kristen Jones)

Ike Griffith is a teacher with Shelby County Schools who has become director of the city’s Office of Youth Services.

The 2016 homicide count is not a tally of numbers to him.

His mind goes directly to Donovan Mills, a student at LeMoyne-Owen College fatally shot in December, toward the end of the homicide count, just across the border of the South Memphis campus.

“That was one of my students,” Griffith says forcefully as he runs through a familiar cycle of questions and guesses about the motivation for “brazen crimes.”

“Why did you do something like that?” he asks rhetorically of the shooter. “It’s just a mindset. We’ve got to be able to create new norms. The norms that are in place now are not good.”

With the 2017 homicide count spiking just as it did a year ago, Griffith has organized a set of four youth forums that began in January and end this month at four local churches in different parts of the city.

“I can’t wait to March or April to put something together,” he said. “I need to know now. These children need to express themselves now.

“The majority of the kids that may come to these forums are not the kids I’m trying to reach,” Griffith said of his effort. “Nine times out of 10 the children that are coming, they have bought in. … which is good. But I’m trying to find a way that we can embrace those children who feel like they have those shortcomings.”

The closest the city has come to that kind of a dialogue was the meeting Rallings organized the day after the July 10 Black Lives Matter protest that shut down the Hernando DeSoto Bridge.

The turbulent gathering at Greater Imani Christian Church in Raleigh tapped gang members and other young adults rarely seen at and unfamiliar with the civic town hall meeting.

The meeting managed to dodge the ritual of elected officials taking at least a third of the time to introduce themselves individually, acknowledge all of the other elected officials and then explain that they are there to hear from the public.

Nevertheless, the protesters were decidedly scornful of its mix of issues other than police misconduct, and of organizations pushing issues the protesters could not have cared less about at that critical moment.

Rallings is blunt in saying where he believes fatal police shootings of civilians rank in his priorities.

“It’s not the police killing Memphis,” he said. “If you believe that, wake up. It’s not true.”

(Memphis Police Department)

Rallings, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, points to the theft of 800 guns in a year’s time stolen in car or home break-ins.

“They are your guns. They are not my guns,” he said of the problems those guns create for his officers. “They’re dealing with your gun that you weren’t responsible enough to keep up with. … You’ve got a $200,000 home and your guns are underneath the bed and the mattress. That’s not being a responsible gun owner.”

Guns are one of the three elements Rallings points to as catalysts for death by violence in Memphis.

“Gangs, guns and drugs are the root cause of these senseless killings. It must stop,” Rallings said in a written statement reacting to the five January homicides in one weekend. “Stop getting involved with gangs and associating yourself with those who participate in criminal behavior. “If you know someone is planning to commit a crime, report it. Stop condoning criminals that are destroying our community. Don’t let your home or neighborhood be a safe haven for those who choose to be on the wrong side of the law.”

PROPERTY SALES 34 34 3,905
MORTGAGES 47 47 4,437
BUILDING PERMITS 190 190 9,458
BANKRUPTCIES 60 60 2,945