Criminal Confusion

Politics, poor communication, and distrust hamper call for 650 more cops.

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In addition to the crime problem, the police and sheriff's department have a trust problem and a communication problem.

Victims can't get their 911 calls answered or routed promptly. Community watchdogs can't get officers to respond to known trouble spots. Prosecutors can't lock up all the violent criminals they convict. City Council members don't necessarily believe additional cops would be deployed wisely and well, and they're reluctant to raise property taxes to pay for them. And the federal investigation of police corruption, Operation Tarnished Blue, has taken a toll on public confidence.

These are the messages that come out of community forums, press conferences, and interviews with elected officials and crime experts. To use a football analogy, Mayor Willie Herenton and Police Director Larry Godwin are backed up inside their 20-yard line as they push for 650 more officers over the next three years and a property tax increase of at least 50 cents to pay for them.

A community forum hosted by councilwoman Carol Chumney last week in East Memphis produced these comments:

From a neighborhood leader, speaking to a police captain: "What can we do if we know there's a problem and we can't get you?"

From Sheriff Mark Luttrell on the 911 problem: "Bartlett, Memphis, and Shelby County each have separate 911 systems. Consolidating it is expensive. It will be two years until it will happen."

From Chumney: "At a Crime Commission meeting two months ago, Director Godwin told me point-blank they did not need more officers."

From Shelby County prosecutor Tom Henderson: "We [Tennessee] have some of the weakest gun laws in the United States. Our laws suck."

From former Police Director Buddy Chapman, now head of Crime Stoppers: "A community suffers only as much crime as it is willing to."

A police captain and an inspector from Central Precinct listened and responded for nearly three hours, as did Chumney, Luttrell, Henderson, and Chapman. But there was no consensus on what works to reduce crime and what should be done.

Chumney, a likely candidate for mayor in 2007, couldn't resist the temptation to lecture Herenton and Godwin, who, not surprisingly, had declined her invitation to attend the event. She thinks the police department's problem is management more than manpower. It's a fact that Godwin has done a complete turnabout on overtime and more cops this year, and Herenton's plan looked slapdash. His cost numbers, for example, are based on 500 cops, but he asked for 650. But Chumney's political digs aren't helping. The issue isn't who was first; it's what to do now.

Chapman's comment seemed to blame the victims. Was he suggesting Memphians are apathetic? That they should arm themselves? Move away? Spring for 650 more cops? Hire 650 more teachers instead? He didn't say.

Henderson, when pressed, said Memphis needs a lot more cops. But the veteran prosecutor also noted that his office handled 100,000 cases last year. Even with tougher laws and stiffer sentences, locking up all the bad guys would require another jail.

The one we have processed 53,000 people last year. Luttrell said he would ask for 35 to 40 more deputies in his next budget because calls for service are up. But when he fielded a question about why crime is currently on the rise, he lapsed into banalities about social inequities. Everyone knows Memphis has poverty, gangs, and injustice. The question is why people in the same circumstances decide to start or stop committing crimes. The "broken windows" approach to crime epidemics says that context matters and that smart policing and swift prosecution can significantly influence behavior.

The Memphis Police Department answered 540,000 service calls during the first eight months of 2006. Godwin has said the manpower shortage is so severe that lieutenants are responding to calls because no officers are available.

Asked about the proposed 650 new cops, Michael Heidingsfield, president of the Memphis Shelby County Crime Commission, said, "It certainly can't hurt, as long as they're deployed properly. But the number of police is never the long-term solution." He favors getting rid of the residency requirement but opposes relaxing the education standard. Corruption is a confidence killer, he said, and without public confidence "the cause is lost."

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