It’s not just that Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin wasted $88,000 in scarce city money pursuing an obsession worthy of Moby Dick.

It’s that with looming layoffs in City Hall, that money could have kept two rank-and-file city employees on the job and of the unemployment rolls in some tough economic times.

We’ve been giving Memphis Police Director Larry Godwin the benefit of a doubt with his preoccupation about an anonymous blogger who bedeviled him with critiques of his management style and decisions.

Perhaps, we thought, Director Godwin was concerned that investigations were being derailed by the unauthorized release of investigative files. Perhaps, we thought, Director Godwin could articulate in the trial on his lawsuit about risks created by the commentary of MPD Enforcer 2.0.

The White Whale

And yet, all we have at this point is an $88,000 legal bill for what now seems to be an inane, ill-considered lawsuit only aimed at ferreting out the identity of the blogger who torments him.

All of this was going on at the time the FBI was telling the nation that Memphis is the second most violent city in the U.S., challenging Detroit for the top spot. In other words, more than the money, it took MPD’s eyes off the ball and fed the department’s grapevine with even more rumors about who was feeding information to the blog.

It seems at times that the director’s own actions have done more to fuel the charges against him than the critics themselves. At a time when he needed to demonstrate the kind of mature, thoughtful leadership that would undercut the criticisms of arrogance and egoism, his actions only provided more ammunition for the charges lobbed against him.

Cultural Revolution

Somehow, the culture of Memphis Police Department has always been insular and inward-looking and a succession of police directors has done little to improve its operations or its reputation. It has been involved, sometimes grudgingly, in anti-crime plans like Operation Safe Community, and while there are high expectations for Blue C.R.U.S.H., and while it’s data-driven approach to attacking crime hotspots is meeting growing community approval, according to the Memphis Poll, the verdict is still out on whether it will reduce the overall crime rate in a meaningful way

Speaking of Operation Safe Community, it’s encouraging that a variety of agencies and organizations – whether through coercion or conscience – are now cooperating in executing a plan of action to attack Memphis’ crime rate, routinely the most serious problem identified by citizens of Shelby County.

But, the problem in Memphis is intensified by the fact that our city is more and more being defined 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.

Pay Now Or Pay Later

After all, for years, Atlanta has enjoyed an economic boom, and 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, and while Operation Safe Community is a noble effort, there’s really no way to add enough jail cells to build our way out of the crime epidemic. It’s disturbing – albeit fiscally suicidal – that politicians, reflecting the will of the people, are always willing to pay $25,000 a year to keep someone in jail, but generally oppose spending a few thousand dollars to pay for interventions that can turn their lives around.

Getting To Root Causes

That’s why strategies that suggest that the magic answers lie in more prosecutors (always the DA’s default recommendation), “do the crime, do the time” marketing campaigns and more and more mandatory sentencing laws are not merely short-sighted, but in the long run, they do nothing to deal with the seedbeds for crime in the first place.

As long as an African-American boy in Memphis City Schools has a greater likelihood of standing in line in prison than standing in line to get a diploma at University of Memphis and as long as 80-100 children are delivered to Shelby County Juvenile Court every month by parents who say they cannot manage them, the indicators for progress are troublesome and the prospects for the future are dire.

In other words, if there’s a city in the United States that should be dealing with the root causes of crime, it’s ours. With our current demographics, Memphis is destined to be gripped with crime problems for decades. When we refer to demographics, we refer to the present link between race and poverty that exists in Memphis. The only serious hope for breaking that link is a historic, citywide program to once and for all deal with the causes of poverty, rather than the symptoms of it.

Paying Attention

Today, the cost of our crime problem is more than $500 million a year. In other words, just as the inattention to sprawl in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s led to the near financial collapse of Shelby County Government, lack of attention now to the web of problems that connect directly to our intractable poverty will lead to the collapse of our entire city and its economy.

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Today, Memphis is in the midst of a crisis and so is the nation. The truth is, however, that Memphis has been in crisis for years, and the impact of the meltdown of our national economy could push us over a cliff.

It’s a grim prospect, but it is not our destiny. That ultimately lies in our own hands.