Whitehaven resident Earvin Clay was in church on the morning of Sunday, June 27th. But while Clay was praying to God, a burglar was preying on his personal property. During the time Clay was away, someone kicked in the door of his Garden View area home, making off with his credit cards and a laptop.
"My daughter witnessed the car pulling off and gave police a description, but they weren't able to find the guy," Clay says.
He's standing in the parking lot of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on Boeingshire during the Garden View neighborhood's National Night Out event on August 3rd. He and his neighbors are sharing their concerns about a rash of recent break-ins with a Memphis police officer, Major Oakley, from the Raines Station precinct.
According to his neighbor James Yancey, Clay's break-in was one of several incidents in the past six weeks in Garden View, an area of 600 or so homes bordered by Shelby Drive, Airways Boulevard, Raines Road, and Interstate 55.
"We had two air-conditioner units stolen and all four tires removed from a car. Two houses have been broken into recently," Yancey said. "Normally, our neighborhood is kind of quiet."
Considering the crime statistics for the area that includes Garden View, Clay's situation shouldn't come as a surprise. His neighborhood falls inside Ward 232, an area of Whitehaven that boasts the highest crime numbers in the city. Bordered by Elvis Presley Boulevard, Raines Road, Airways Boulevard, and Stateline Road, the multi-block area is just south of Graceland.
In 2009, Ward 232 had 2,964 "part one" crimes, which include aggravated assaults, auto thefts, forcible rapes, homicides, larcenies, robberies of businesses and individuals, and burglaries of businesses, residences, and non-residences. The majority of crimes in the ward were property crimes and aggravated assaults. There also were five homicides.
For comparison, Ward 626 in the South Main district downtown only had 236 "part one" crimes in 2009.
While the numbers are down this year, Ward 232 still has the highest crime in the city, with 1,373 "part one" crimes as of July 13th.
"In this particular area, we have a lot of apartment complexes and we have a lot of individuals who come in from other areas to visit the people in the apartments," said Colonel Mary Jackson of the Raines Station precinct. "Those people may see something in someone else's apartment that they're interested in, and they have a 'help themselves' mentality. The majority of arrests we make in that area are people who don't even live in the area."
Property crime and blight tend to go hand-in-hand, and while neighborhoods like Clay's are well maintained, much of the ward is peppered with distressed apartment complexes. The attendant crime bleeds over into nicer neighborhoods.
In February 2008, the University of Memphis' Center for Community Building and Neighborhood Action (CBANA) began a massive survey of blighted properties across the city. CBANA's community outreach coordinator, TK Buchanan, drove through every ward in the city, snapping photographs of blighted property and homes with serious code violations.
"We breezed in and out of South Memphis, Klondike, and New Chicago without scrapes. Some people spit on my car and called me horrible names, but I'm a white woman driving through distressed neighborhoods in a Volvo. I was the biggest douche bag they'd seen that day," Buchanan said.
This past January, Buchanan and an assistant drove through Ward 232 in search of blighted properties, and their luck ran out. She'd saved the area for last, knowing that it has the highest crime numbers in the city.
"On the first day in Ward 232, we noticed an interesting network of corner boys — teenagers with cell phones on almost every corner. As we turned each corner, the boys would pick up their cell phones," said Buchanan, who assumed they were calling one another to track her movement through the neighborhood.
"Then an SUV began following us, making no attempt to conceal the fact that they were following us. They were deliberately trying to intimidate us," Buchanan said. "After about 40 minutes, we decided the neighborhood wasn't safe, and we went to a different section. There we found another network of corner boys, and two more SUVs followed us and ran us off the road."
Despite the harassment, Buchanan managed to complete the survey in Ward 232, calculating an 11 percent blight rate: 636 single-family homes, 27 duplexes, 29 apartment complexes, and 15 vacant lots were out of compliance with the city housing code.
"The relationship between blight and crime is pretty well documented, so the closer you get to [blighted] housing, the closer you get to the bad guys," Buchanan said.
Buchanan put together a map (pictured here) overlaying crime with blighted property, and it shows that the majority of the property crime and violent crime occurs in or around blighted homes and apartment complexes, places such as Pepper Tree Apartments, South Pointe Town Homes, the Millcreek Apartments, and McKeller Woods Apartments.
"The crime appears to be coming from apartments and clusters around the blighted areas," Buchanan said. "The neighborhoods themselves are in pretty good shape overall. It's the commercial and apartment properties that make everything look ghetto in that area."
In many higher-crime areas of the city, Buchanan said that crime has followed blight. Neighborhoods began to crumble and crime rates rose. But in Ward 232, Buchanan theorizes the opposite occurred. She thinks blight may be following crime.
"Newer properties have fallen to investors who are milking the properties for revenue and deferring maintenance. Then they're walking away when it finally becomes uninhabitable," Buchanan said.
Police Car Crisis
On a Friday afternoon in late July, Officer Brett Murphy arrives at 2 p.m. for his shift at the Raines Station precinct. He waits nearly an hour for an available patrol car.
Murphy acknowledges a car shortage at his precinct, saying officers often wait around at the beginning of their shifts for patrol cars. When a car finally arrived at nearly 3 p.m., Murphy is immediately called to an apartment in the rundown South Pointe Town Homes on East Shelby Drive. He's meeting two other police officers to assist a caseworker from the Department of Children's Services (DCS) on a child abuse call.
Murphy, the other officers, and the caseworker stand outside the door of an apartment with a leaking air conditioning window unit and foil covering the windows. An older woman opens the door to reveal 10 children ranging in age from toddlers to elementary school students.
Several children are eating bowls of cereal or popsicles, which officers later learn is the only food in the house. The air conditioning barely works, mattresses line the living room floor, and flies circle the children's heads. A foul stench of human waste is evident from outside the open front door, and police later learn of plumbing problems in the apartment. The caseworker has come to take all the children into DCS custody.
But this is not a quick process. Since a few of the children are visiting the home, their parents must be notified. The three officers on duty in Ward 232 — the majority of the police force for the area at that hour — stay on the scene for 45 minutes, before Murphy's lieutenant frees him to take other calls. The two other officers must remain on the scene in case a fight breaks out when parents arrive to find their kids being taken into custody.
Murphy leaves South Pointe Town Homes for the Highland Meadows apartments, where a couple of residents report a car break-in. Next he's called to Graceland Farms apartments for a shots-fired call, but he's unable to locate the suspect. Nearly an hour later, Murphy is called back to South Pointe, where the two officers are still on the scene of the child-abuse call. They need Murphy's help when one of the angry fathers starts fighting other relatives. The man is arrested and placed in a squad car.
A few minutes later, about an hour and a half after Murphy left Raines Station, he's called back to the precinct to double up with a partner who doesn't have an available police car.
"When you consider the area the officers have to cover and how little equipment they have to go around, it's amazing they can catch anybody," said Jackie Jenkins, president of the Garden View Neighborhood Association. "We have officers who can't patrol, because they don't have enough cars at the precinct. That's a thorn in my side."
Memphis police director Larry Godwin said the car shortage is an issue citywide, but some Ward 232 residents feel that more cars should be shuffled into their neighborhood.
A resident of Coronado Estates Townhomes, who asked that her name not be used, said she asked for increased patrols in her neighborhood after some kids were seen tossing fireworks into bushes on the Fourth of July.
"They told me on July 5th that they'd start patrolling my neighborhood more often, but I haven't seen that happen yet," she said at the Garden View National Night Out event.
Godwin said he requested 200 new cars from the Memphis City Council for the entire department this year, but due to budget cuts, the department only got 145 cars.
"We've increased officers, but we haven't been increasing cars," Godwin said. "We recognize that concern."
Currently, the Memphis Police Department has 1,183 uniform patrol officers and 857 marked vehicles. Of that number, 130 cars are new and must be outfitted with radios, striping, flashing lights, and other equipment before they can be used.
Godwin said each precinct is assigned a certain number of cars based on the size of the total area, not based on crime statistics. It's up to the precinct's colonel to determine how many cars are assigned to each ward.
"We would love it if the [city] administration would put more cars into the areas with the highest crime rates, but, unfortunately, they allocate so many cars to the department every year and they are just split up," Jackson said. "We're trying our best to address crime effectively, even with the shortage. But we could do a lot more with more cars."
Though the Garden View neighborhood has escaped the blight that marks so many other areas of Ward 232, it's not immune to crime, especially break-ins and other forms of property crime.
Jenkins has lived in the area for more than 25 years, and she's noticed a big change in the crime rate.
"I think crime has increased dramatically. Used to be, kids could stay out after dark, but they don't do that anymore," Jenkins said.
When she moved into the neighborhood, most of the residents were homeowners. But over the years, homeowners moved out and began renting their property.
"Renters don't have the same sense of ownership, and they don't necessarily get involved in the neighborhood association," Jenkins said. "They don't care about code violations on their property the way a homeowner would."
Jenkins also serves as the neighborhood watch coordinator for her area, and she says she invites renters living in apartments and homes to get involved.
"Renters are just as much a potential victim as homeowners are. The person casing a neighborhood doesn't care if you own or rent that house," Jenkins said.
She said she feels like the officers at Raines Station do the best they can with the resources they have.
"The officers and command at Raines Station precinct are excellent. They've caught at least three burglaries in progress in our neighborhood," Jenkins said. "Of course, if it hadn't been for neighbors calling the police, they wouldn't have known."
Several neighborhoods in Ward 232 have strong watch groups and that seems to lead to less crime in those areas. Willie Brooks is the neighborhood watch coordinator and association president of Valleywood, a neighborhood bordered by Butterworth Road, Autumnwood Avenue, Haverwood Avenue, and Whitworth Road. Valleywood is located several blocks south of Garden View, near Southland Mall.
"We get monthly Cyberwatch reports from the Memphis police that list every crime around our area," Brooks said. "About 95 percent of the addresses on this list are just outside our neighborhood."
Brooks said the way to keep crime out of Valleywood is a strong neighborhood watch group and proper maintenance of property. Driving through Valleywood, it's obvious that the neighborhood is one of the nicest in Whitehaven. Nearly every yard is trimmed, edged, and landscaped with vibrant flowerbeds.
At the National Night Out event in Valleywood on August 3rd, Brooks awarded two residents with certificates for keeping the neighborhood in line. Longtime resident Billy Walker, a painter by trade, was commended for his work painting over street signs vandalized by gang graffiti.
Jackie Robinson, dubbed the "The Mayor of Valleywood" by fellow residents, was honored for encouraging neighbors to maintain their property.
"I'm not afraid to ask my neighbors if they need help taking care of their yard," Robinson said. "I'll knock on their door and ask them if their lawnmower isn't working. When people don't take care of their property, others around them might stop caring. That's a snowball effect."
Neighborhoods like Garden View and Valleywood are a few of the beacons in the otherwise crime-ridden ward. Police continue to struggle with decreasing crime in the blighted apartment communities, but so far this year, Jackson said crime in Ward 232 is down 20 percent.
"We have officers in unmarked cars and we have bike cops. We even have officers out on patrol, just walking through areas and maintaining that visibility," Jackson said. "Our officers are committed to working and making this area a safe place for everyone."