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Q&A with Bill Gibbons

Shelby County District Attorney



In a place where crime rates consistently put Memphis on top of most dangerous cities lists, even the district attorney has been a victim. On a hot summer day in the mid-'80s, district attorney Bill Gibbons was robbed at gunpoint while walking with his 5-year-old daughter in their neighborhood.

No one was hurt, and the robbers only got away with Gibbons' $18 digital wristwatch. But the incident added more fuel to Gibbons' desire to fight Memphis crime.

With the release of his new book No Surrender! A Battle Plan for Creating Safer Communities, Gibbons reveals his strategies to help Memphis and other communities reduce crime. Some of the recommendations from the book are already under way in Memphis, such as the city's drug-dealer eviction program. But Gibbons addresses other crime-fighting strategies that he believes the city and state could benefit from implementing, such as tougher state sentencing laws.

Gibbons will be signing his book at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Tuesday, February 16th, at 6 p.m.

What inspired this book?

In 2007, I was picked for a team to go to New Orleans and advise the district attorney's office in New Orleans Parish on how to turn the situation around there. The D.A.'s office in New Orleans had serious problems for many years. Katrina really brought those problems to the forefront.

[All the prosecutors on the team] were pretty opinionated, but we very quickly agreed on the basic steps that needed to be taken. While you have to address the specific needs of a community, there are some general approaches we all agreed upon.

Who is the intended audience?

It's intended for people who want to make a difference in their communities in the area of public safety. Yes, that includes law enforcement officials but also neighborhood-watch leaders or business leaders. It's designed to try and reach the larger audience. Any citizen who wants to make a difference in public safety can read this and get some good ideas.

In the book, you reveal that you skipped school when you were a kid. What's up with that?

I reveal quite a bit about myself in the book. I thought it was important to do that because a lot of the issues I wrote about are things I've experienced in my own life. At an early age, I was skipping school, and my family had fallen into poverty. I didn't see much hope for the future. I didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel. So in the book, I talk about the problem of truancy and some ways we could approach that.

You talk a lot about juvenile crime in the book, but that's not your problem as the district attorney. Why are you focusing on youth?

It's really a preventive step, trying to reduce the number of juveniles who'd ever want to go down the path of crime in the first place. Far too often, skipping school can be a gateway to far more serious problems. If we address skipping school, we will have an impact on the crime rate. I think it's important for prosecutors and others in law enforcement to be proactive.

You address the need for vertical prosecution as a crime-fighting strategy. What does that mean?

It's a more hands-on approach to prosecution. The same team of prosecutors handles one case from the moment a charge is approved on the front end all the way through to disposition. That means the team of prosecutors really understand all the aspects of that case and they can make sure that every "t" is crossed and "i" is dotted. The chances of having a good outcome are increased.

In Shelby County, we've tried to do this with the limited resources we have by carving out certain areas, like domestic violence, to vertically prosecute. If we had more prosecutors in the office, we could do more of that. But we're trying to do the best with the resources that we have.

If you could pick three crime-fighting strategies that communities need to implement, what would they be?

I hate to only pick three, but I'd say tougher sentencing laws for serious offenders, more funding for effective drug treatment through drug treatment courts, and more resources to focus on what I call community prosecution. That's assigning prosecutors to specific neighborhoods to deal with those neighborhood problems. But that takes more resources.

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