VOL. 132 | NO. 4 | Thursday, January 5, 2017
Crime Issue Shows Complexity After Record Homicide Tally
By Bill Dries
When the subject is crime in Memphis, it never stays in one place for very long. Former Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton’s conclusion that the city’s problem with violent crime is a black problem drew criticism Tuesday, Jan. 3, from Memphis City Council member Janis Fullilove.
City Council member Janis Fullilove asked Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings, left, if he backed statements by former Mayor Willie Herenton that the city’s violent crime levels are a “black problem.”
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
Fullilove asked Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings whether he thought Herenton was right.
Minutes later in the same council committee room, council member Philip Spinosa said shopping malls should consider providing additional security measures instead of relying solely on Memphis Police to quell disturbances at the malls.
As Rallings responded to both, he told the council the police force has dipped below the 2,000 mark, with 1,965 officers on the force as of Tuesday and a new class of police recruits entering training in March.
“Our March class is looking good,” Rallings said. “But I think it is important for all of us to recognize that we will not increase staffing into the complement overnight. It will take a little while for that to happen.”
Rallings’ goal and that of Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland is a police force of 2,400. And after a record-setting homicide count in the city in 2016, there are concerns about what happens between now and a 2,400 headcount in blue.
The broader discussion emerged when Fullilove segued to Herenton’s comment which he had made in several interviews before his speech at Strickland’s first annual prayer breakfast Dec. 31.
“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 as that – as if black people are going to have to solve this,” Fullilove said, before turning to Rallings. “Did that statement by any means have any effect upon your policing or the way that you are going to police in the future?”
“We’ll continue to reach out to the African-American community. That’s who we serve,” Rallings replied. “We know that Memphis is majority African-American. Our calls for service, our incidents, happen in the African-American community. I think it’s important we recognize the facts. Of those 228 homicide victims, 200 are African-American.”
Rallings said he understood how Herenton came to his conclusion. But Rallings didn’t say he necessarily agreed or disagreed with Herenton.
“I think as a community we have to work together,” he said.
Spinosa’s specific concern was a pair of incidents at the Wolfchase Galleria and Oak Court Mall Dec. 27 when large groups of people at each began running and screaming, prompting mall security at each site to call police and shut down the malls at least temporarily. That same day there were similar disturbances at other malls in other cities.
Rallings said he is already exploring a more “layered” approach to policing that includes venues using more private security to work with police.
A dozen people were arrested in the two disturbances, 10 at Wolfchase and two at Oak Court, according to Deputy Police Chief Terry Landrum.
“One thing that could happen is parents can police their children,” Rallings told the council. “As we see things posted on social media that our children are posting, we can’t sit idly by.”
Spinosa agreed but also said he wants to talk with mall owners about beefing up their private security.
“Maybe they need to step it up a little bit,” he said. “Every year, if I’m not mistaken, I believe the malls reach out to y’all … and asking y’all to take our city owned resources and put them in their parking lot. Maybe they could start providing the cameras.”
Landrum said police work with the malls and that many of the private security guards are off-duty police officers.
“They are part of our community,” Landrum said of the malls. “They pay taxes. They deserve protection like everybody else.”
In the Oak Court and Wolfchase incidents, police had contingency plans for such disturbances that he said allowed police to respond quickly.
There had been other rumors of mob activities over the holiday weekend, some posted on social media. That included a New Year’s Eve meme that warned of gang violence at the Majestic movie theater in Hickory Hill. Malco, which owns the theater, took measures well in advance and Memphis Police also were visible at the theater.
Also at the theater were some leaders of the Coalition of Concerned Citizens, who called for a “free movie challenge” to counteract media coverage of the rumor. The group paid for any child’s entrance to any movie at the theater with the group acting as chaperones. The group bought 63 tickets for children that evening.
Rallings says other cities have gone to a more layered approach that includes private security measures – most notably in Washington, D.C., where there are different police forces for different parts of the city.
“You see a very strong presence of private security at almost every venue and I think that’s something we need in Memphis,” Rallings said. “I think in Memphis many have relied on law enforcement to provide their security needs and I think that’s a model that we can’t sustain.”
Rallings and his staff are set to meet with mall owners this week.
“I’m going to ask that the business community look at their businesses and make sure that they are doing everything in their power to make sure that the people who support their businesses are safe,” he said. “That means more private security.”