Homicides in the first couple months of 2016 have nearly doubled from where the numbers were at this time last year, with 33 homicides so far compared with 19 by mid-February last year. Other serious crimes, such as robbery and aggravated assault, are up slightly from last year.
As a result, the Memphis Police Department (MPD) is attempting to beef up their presence in areas considered "crime hotspots," but they're doing so with a handicap. The MPD is about 400 officers shy of a full complement.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland recently authorized interim Memphis Police Director Michael Rallings to rearrange staffing to make sure as many officers as possible are on the streets. According to Rallings, that means more officers are working overtime.
"We have allocated additional overtime to put more boots on the ground. We've also made some adjustments in our Organized Crime Unit, and we've employed some more of our special operations units to targeted areas," Rallings said.
Rallings said citizens are already beginning to take notice of an increased police presence.
"I've had some positive feedback from several citizens who said they've seen more officers in some of these problematic areas," said Rallings, referring to areas identified as hotspots through the MPD's use of data-driven policing.
Once the MPD's police service technician (PST) program gets off the ground, that should also free up more patrol officers to deal with serious crimes, Rallings said. Police service technicians are trained to handle minor issues, like fender-benders and directing traffic. The MPD had a PST program years ago, but it was eventually phased out. The program is being revived this year, and the first class of PSTs will begin on April 4th. The program takes six weeks to complete.
Currently, the MPD has 2,063 commissioned police officers, down from 2,450 officers when staffing levels peaked in November 2011.
"Data that we're getting from exit interviews have shown that the change in the pension was a big deal," Rallings said. "We had spousal carve-out on insurance benefits, and not fully funding retiree healthcare caused a lot of folks to seek jobs elsewhere."
While Rallings admits the pension situation still isn't ideal, he said Strickland is working with the city's human resources director Alexandria Smith to "lay out a plan to improve benefits." Rallings said the MPD is working on a new ad campaign to recruit more officers, and he hopes the department can bring in 400 more over the next few years.
Of course, Rallings may not be around in the top job to oversee that hiring. Strickland will soon sign a contract with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to serve as a search firm to identify a new police director to replace former director Toney Armstrong, who left the MPD last month to take a job at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Though it's not been formalized, Strickland has suggested raising the MPD director salary to $250,000, up from $150,000. The higher figure is on par with what police directors make in several other large cities, such as Chicago, Oakland, Seattle, and Atlanta.
Rallings won't confirm if he'll be seeking the position.
"I'm just here to serve as the interim and assist with that process any way I can and keep the ship floating," Rallings said. "I have not said one way or another [if I will apply], but I have consistently said that it's premature for me to talk about that because people are dependent on us to get it right today."