On September 1st, police found 25-year-old Sontonio Brown lying on the ground near 5486 Oak Bark Drive in Whitehaven suffering from a gunshot wound. He died at Regional One Health shortly after.
The investigation quickly netted a father, son, and grandfather — 35-year-old Anthony Cleveland, 15-year-old Anthony Cleveland Jr., and 67-year-old Robert Cleveland — who allegedly fired the fatal shots from a green SUV. The motive has not yet been revealed.
Brown's murder is one of many to occur in Memphis this year. But despite what seems like constant news reports of homicides in Memphis, the numbers are actually down a bit from last year, with 75 homicides year-to-date this July versus 79 year-to-date last July, the most recent numbers available from the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission.
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The numbers are way down from 2006, when the city launched data-driven policing, and the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission started its Operation: Safe Community initiative. Year-to-date through July in 2006, there were 99 homicides.
Last week, The New York Times reported that major cities across the nation are seeing a spike in homicides. Milwaukee jumped from 59 murders year-to-date last year to 104 so far this year. Other cities in the top 10 included St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, New Orleans, Chicago, Kansas City, Dallas, New York City, and Philadelphia. Memphis didn't make the list.
"I was pleased," said Memphis Shelby Crime Commission Interim Director Rick Masson, when asked his reaction to seeing that Memphis wasn't included in the Times article.
Masson said homicides are hard to predict, since many are crimes of passion. But he believes Operation: Safe Community is at least partly responsible for an overall drop in crime.
The reported major violent crime — murder, rape, aggravated assault, robbery — rate for January to July 2015 was down 4.6 percent countywide and 3.9 percent in the city, compared to the same period in 2014. That same rate was down 20.7 percent countywide and 16.4 percent in Memphis compared to the same period in 2006. Property crimes and domestic violence crimes are also on the decrease.
"You have to deal with this from a prevention standpoint," Masson said. "You have to keep people who haven't stepped onto that road of crime from stepping onto that road. That involves more of the community than it does the police force, but the police force still serves as a deterrent."
Operation: Safe Community is a plan with 61 initiatives that deal with everything from violence in the home to gang and drug crimes, blight, youth violence, truancy, and prison recidivism. There's a heavy emphasis on data-driven policing, which the Memphis Police Department (MPD) employs, targeting crime hotspots based on how often they occur in certain areas of the city. The MPD did not respond to requests for comment.
Masson says that while he thinks Operation Safe Community, which partners with the MPD, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, and about 100 partner agencies, is working, it's important to note that there is much work left to do.
"Our crime is still high. I don't want anyone to think I'm being Pollyanna about this," Masson said. "But we're making progress. The numbers are down, but we still have a long way to go. The numbers are still higher than a lot of other cities."