What a difference 24 hours can make.

We were actually planning to write today about the positive impact and leadership that the new, improved version of the Memphis City Council is providing. Traditionally, the elected officials with the lowest public approval rating, we have been impressed by the new sense of purpose and fresh thinking in Council meetings.

Unfortunately, the vote by Memphis City Council against broadening Memphis Police Department’s recruiting territory undercuts everything good we had planned on saying.

It wasn’t just that it split strictly down racial lines, although that’s always a glimpse into the debilitating and different world views that make Memphis a tale of two cities. More to the point, it was the complete lack of civility shown to people who dared have a different opinion and the racial overtones that characterized so many of the comments aimed at business leaders in particular.

Civic Involvement Is A Good Thing

In a city where civic participation in the public process is about as scarce as Elvis impersonators in December, the City Council meeting last night featured an outpouring of business leaders and average citizens united by the idea that more must be done to reduce a crime rate that remains the Memphis public’s #1 issue – #1 across all racial, income, and age lines – and to send an unmistakable message that our city leaders “get it,” understanding fully the risk that Memphis has for being forever branded as a city out of control.

Ironically, just a couple of days ago, we wrote this:

“But, the problem in Memphis is intensified by the fact that our city is more and more being defined (in national media) as a place that’s out of control, and the most frequent evidence for that conclusion is crime. It’s a rare city actually that finds itself in a position where it is so defined by crime that it affects all that it does, particularly economic development.

“After all, for years, Atlanta has enjoyed an economic boom, while all the while, its crime rate was one of the highest in the nation. Closer to home, Nashville – with a crime rate comparable to ours and sometimes higher – never had its economy jolted by a national perception of a crime-ridden city. Conversely, there was Detroit or Newark, cities that ultimately were written off in large measure because their crime problems became the symbol for a city that was failing.

“Memphis now runs the same risk…”

Risky Business

That risk went up with last night’s 7-6 vote against a resolution to allow police applicants to come from within 20 miles of the Shelby County line, rather than requiring them to live in the county borders.

Crime was already on our minds last night before the Council vote. We were catching up on a couple of days of unread New York Times, and we read the article about the murder of a transgendered citizen of our city, the same person previously beaten up in the Shelby County Jail by an alleged law officer, a fact also mentioned in the coverage.

The article made us reflect on the newspaper’s coverage of our city. We are hard-pressed to remember a hard news story in the past 18 months that has dealt with anything other than crime and investigations. Like it or not, Memphis is more and more being defined and identified nationally by its inability to curb its crisis level crime rates. More to the point, more and more, the lack of progress on this front means that the future of our city is being defined as well.

The Council’s vote was a wake-up call for greater citizen activism. It’s no longer enough for us to say that every big city has crime. It’s no longer acceptable for us to justify or explain it away. It’s no longer palatable that our elected leaders won’t do everything within their realm of authority to do something – anything.

Killing The Messengers

With their votes against the resolution, seven Council members told the Memphis public that politics trumps safety, political advantage is more important than public service. More frightening is that they sent the message to a crowded room of influential Memphians – leaders of our largest employers and victims of crime who want to stay in the city they love so much – that they simply don’t matter.

Even given the promise of an immediate investigation of the hiring practices of Memphis Police Department – and some concerns by Council members are not without merit – it was not enough to broker an agreement that gives our city the police officers that it needs.

Perhaps, Councilman Jim Strickland’s comment was best: “If you don’t want officers in your district who live outside Memphis, send them to my district.” That’s a sentiment felt by most Memphians, and we hope that someone will forward poll results to the entire Council that spells out just how upset citizens are about crime.

Besides being the #1 thing on the minds of Memphians, it is also the top reason that Memphians become former Memphians. Nothing has more impact in convincing families to abandon our city than crime, and the peril of that movement is seen in overtaxed citizens and overtaxed public services as Memphis hollows out even more (we’re already in the top 10).

Moving On Out

And let’s make this clear. If you look at the numbers of people moving out of Memphis, this isn’t about white flight. It’s about flight, period. The middle class – regardless of race – is moving out of the city limits. The largest influx of new residents to DeSoto County is African-Americans and a troubling percentage of those who remain in Memphis say they are thinking about leaving.

Most disturbingly, this vote was the hot topic today for young professionals in Memphis – the people that we need most if we are to succeed in today’s economy. Unfortunately, many of them were talking today about leaving Memphis. As one young father told us – with his voice breaking because he felt like he is abandoning the city he loves most – he could no longer convince his wife – who was from the Northeast – that Memphis was worth the fight. More to the point, he could no longer convince himself that his wife and infant daughter were safe in their Memphis neighborhood, and they began today to take steps to move.

That’s why the City Council’s vote is so suicidal. This isn’t just about police applicants. It’s about the future of the city and proving that our leaders are dead serious about changing things. Otherwise, the only people left in Memphis – a schizophrenic demographic profile already materializing – are the poor who can’t afford to move and the rich who can live anywhere, complete with security systems and neighborhood patrols.

If you think that opposing coaches use newspaper coverage as bulletin board motivation, they’re nothing compared to Chamber and economic development executives. If you don’t believe that the cities we compete against aren’t sending around stories portraying Memphis as akin to the “Old West,” you don’t understand the highly competitive nature of economic development.

Some Council members said that they opposed the resolution because of its negative economic impact. Then, they cast no votes that fundamentally did more damage to Memphis’ competitive position than any negative impacts that they were citing in connection with the recruiting policy change.

The Consensus

The vote by the Council raised these questions by some of the people who attended the Council meeting: “What’s the equation: how many murders are acceptable in return for political power? What’s the number of people who can be shot so politicians and feed their egos? How many people are to be wounded because we don’t have adequate policemen in Memphis?”

Their cynicism is forgivable. After all, they attended a meeting in which the Memphis mayor, the Shelby County mayor, the Shelby County district attorney, the sheriff, the director of the Memphis Police Department, Memphis Police Association, the Crime Commission, representatives of Memphis Tomorrow and Memphis’ largest employers and a special task force endorsed the change in policy. And yet, this rare unanimity of opinion by the people closest to the crime problem and unbiased in their analysis was dismissed (along with some tactless comments made to several speakers).

Perhaps, it’s possible that all of these people are wrong. But faced with our top ranking in the U.S. for our crime rates, it would just seem logical that if there’s ever been a time when it’s worth a gamble to do something different, surely this would be it. Doing the same and expecting different results is not only the definition of insanity; it’s the definition of insane public policy.

We are not saying that the Council members who voted against the change in recruiting policy are bad people. They are not. Their opinions are sincere and deeply felt. The wrongs of this city run deep and the fruits of institutional racism are obvious. They hear about it frequently from their constituents. That said, this is not the issue to use as a way to stick their fingers in the eyes of the power structure.

On A Bubble

While there does at time seem to be more emotion invested in victims of crime who are white or outrage in crimes in “white neighborhoods,” it’s worth remembering that the ultimate victims of crime are African-Americans, particularly those who feel like captives in their own homes and who feel at constant risk.

Here’s the thing, and none of us should make a mistake about this: It will take all of us to reverse the current trends and turn around our city. We have no margin for error.

Memphis is on a bubble. We just hope that we’re not the ones who puncture it and send our city down a road from which it cannot return.

Hopefully, in the coming weeks, the City Council will revisit this issue and that our Council members place their emphasis more on statesmanship than politic. If they do, Memphis City Council will deserve all the accolades that we had intended to write about it today.