Bernard Richmond is a one man downtown image wrecking crew.
Last weekend, Memphis police say, he attempted to rape a 24-year old woman in the first-floor lobby of a parking garage at 60 Madison Avenue, across from the University of Memphis Law School.
First, he asked her for money, but investigators believe the panhandling was a ruse for the assault. A parking-lot security guard heard the woman’s screams and drove off Richmond, who was arrested nearby at South Fourth and Gayoso a few hours later. He is in jail on $125,000 bond after a court appearance Monday. The woman was not injured. The attack occurred at approximately 2:30 a.m. Saturday.
The attempted rape is the second one this month at the parking garage. It sets back efforts by the Center City Commission, Mayor A C Wharton, and Memphis police to convince the public that downtown is as safe or safer than any neighborhood in Memphis. The law school was hailed as a catch for downtown when it moved earlier this year from the University of Memphis campus into the renovated former customs house and postal inspection station.
It also fuels the fears of downtown residents who see aggressive panhandling as something more than a nuisance. It won’t help efforts to bring Pinnacle Airlines and other businesses downtown to fill up empty office buildings or attract tourists to the riverfront and Beale Street. And it defies the compassion of advocates for the homeless who argue that criminalizing panhandling is uncalled for.
In April, the Memphis City Council passed an ordinance cracking down on panhandling downtown. It limits panhandling to certain zones downtown where there are police and security cameras. Council members and staff said the measure drew more calls and comments pro and con than anything they had done this year.
According to the police report, Richmond, 45, “approached the victim as she entered the parking garage lobby, grabbing her in a bear hug, dragging her to the rear of the lobby.”
He pulled her underwear down and pulled down his own underwear and attempted to rape her. When the parking-lot security guard intervened, Richmond fled.
Richmond has a long arrest record, including previous charges of attempted rape and aggravated sexual battery. He has also been arrested for panhandling, robbery, disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana, criminal trespass (eight times), driving without a license, evading arrest, theft, burglary (two times), violation of parole, carrying a pistol (two times), and contempt of court (five times).
He is also not smart. His latest attack was captured by video surveillance. Col. R.L. Shemwell of the Memphis Police Department said Richmond told officers he had just been released from jail on September 20th, but public records say September 17th. He was indicted in February 2008 on a 2007 robbery charge.
“He is not a panhandler,” said Larry Bloom, manager of public safety for the Center City Commission. “He used that as a ruse to get her to come close to him, and then he tried to rape her.”
Bloom said the CCC will not change its panhandling policy in light of the Richmond incident. By ordinance, there is no panhandling allowed in non-exempt areas, after 7 p.m., or inside buildings.
“He [Richmond] is an outlier,” he said. “Most of our guys are active during the day and maybe until 11 or 12 at night. Passive panhandlers are not a problem. Homeless are not a problem. Research shows, and we have confirmed, that only a small percentage of homeless panhandle, and only a small percentage of panhandlers are homeless. There’s a core group of about 25 guys that we deal with.”
Bloom said increased police presence has made a difference. But defining the three or four areas where panhandling is permitted “has taken longer than I thought it would,” because it is hard to satisfy downtown stakeholders and advocates for the homeless and passive panhandlers. “Nobody wants them anywhere, but you can’t do that because it is protected free speech,” he said. “There will be a learning curve for everybody.”