Gang violence is perhaps Memphis law enforcement's biggest imbroglio, a complex problem linked to the majority of non-domestic violent crimes in Shelby County.
But the new Multi-Agency Gang Unit (MGU), a partnership between federal and local law enforcement introduced last week, gives authorities another tool against the proliferation of gangs and gang violence in Shelby County.
"The Memphis gang problem is very complicated," said Ray Lepone, who heads up the gang and narcotics unit for the Shelby County District Attorney's Office. "You've got juveniles who aren't as organized as you'd think they would be, carrying guns and willing to shoot over anything. And then you've got a traditional gang problem, with gangs like the Vice Lords, Gangster Disciples, and Bloods, who try to get organized here."
Lepone, who will be in charge of prosecution for the Multi-Agency Gang Unit, is confident the new unit is the best course of action.
"It's a collaborative, coordinated approach with everybody who has an interest in the gang problem in our county," he said.
Lepone stresses the difference between this new unit and past gang task forces. "A task force, the way we define it, is usually a bunch of agencies that come together for a common task or specific operation. But this is a day-to-day operating unit. All the agencies will be housed together."
The unit will assemble representatives from the U.S. attorney's office for the Western District of Tennessee, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the DA's office, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, and the Memphis Police Department. Officers will wear an MGU logo, but their uniforms will distinguish them by agency.
The MGU's operations team will bring an increase in law enforcement officers on the ground, long-term investigations of gangs, collaboration with the mayor's initiative on youth gun violence, as well as partnerships with community intervention and prevention programs to discourage gang recruitment. The prosecution team will carry cases from investigation to disposition and will work hand-in-hand with federal prosecutors, another new facet of this MGU approach.
"We not only have the added resources," said District Attorney Amy Weirich, "we also have the strength of the federal law on our side. By having federal attorneys working with us, we can seek those tougher federal sentences."
Prosecutors will also continue to push for teens involved in gang-related crimes to be tried as adults.
"There's a big difference between a 9-year-old who's asked to be a lookout on an aggravated burglary and a 16-year-old who gets a gun, keeps it in his backpack, and uses it to rob people," Weirich said. "If we can deter crime by sending a strong message and using a 16-year-old as an example, that's what we're going to do."
The local unit was modeled after a similar operation in Fresno, California, but MGU also draws on the widely touted Boston Operation Ceasefire program, which Lepone says has dealt successfully with less-organized, street-level gangs similar to those in Memphis.
Yet both Lepone and Weirich admit the suppression tactics are only a part of the solution.
"We completely understand as law enforcement that there's no way we're solving the gang problem," Lepone said. "The gang problem is a community problem, and it starts at a young age. We've got to get to the 9-year-olds before they get recruited, and we have to have a mechanism to get kids out of these gangs."