There is so much that the business leadership could do to help fight crime in Memphis.

They could fully participate in the meetings of law enforcement and criminal justice officials that are regularly called to consider ways to improve the fight against crime and urge their employees to do the same in numerous community meetings.

They could act in partnership and communicate with the many organizations such as the Justice and Safety Alliance that are fighting crime at the grassroots, pursuing evidence and data-based solutions, and listen and act on their recommendations.

They could help develop a data hub with a comprehensive measurements that provide a context for evaluating the police, criminal justice system, and corrections, replacing the present data hubs with their weak and incomplete metrics.

The could urge the reboot of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission or the creation of a replacement since its ideas have clearly not worked, crime has climbed dramatically on its watch, and it fails to lead the campaign for a better, comprehensive data hub.

Most of all, the business community could fund national experts with track records for reducing crime in other cities to come to Memphis and undertake a top-to-bottom analysis of MPD structure and policies, the criminal court system to ensure that speedy justice is more than a talking point, the problems in the county’s historic public defender’s office, and the interlocking programs and policies that converge to influence crime.

These are just some of the things that the Memphis business leadership could do to contribute to the development and implementation of innovative strategies that are working in other cities.

A Curious Decision

So what did they do? 

They sent a letter to Governor Bill Lee asking for the help of state government, ignoring its decidedly political approach offering prepackaged and partisan answers with no real knowledge or expertise in local governmental safety and justice issues.  It is generally hyperbolic, research-free and lacks evidence to support its requests, instead chasing magic legislative answers of the moment.

Under the banner of the Greater Chamber Chairman’s Circle and its 170 businesses, among the things they asked for in their letter, they asked for:

  • $50 million for crimefighting in the “tourist zone.”

They did not define the geography of the area but it’s presumed to be downtown (although the Graceland area is a tourist zone).  It’s unclear where the $50 million price tag in the ask came from, if it is based on any analysis, or how it will be spent.  (It immediately brought to mind that Memphis businesses receive approximately $750 million every 10 years in tax breaks or don’t pay taxes because they are located on public property.)

  • Pass legislation making the possession of a stolen firearm a felony. 

Or put another way, they asked state government to pass a law for a problem that it contributed to, caused by legislation that led to the proliferation of guns, including assault weapons, on city streets.  The letter does not ask for support for the common sense gun laws supported by a majority of Tennesseans and that’s a fatal oversight.  

  • Support and pass Senator Brent Taylor’s blended sentencing legislation and support and pass Senator Brent Taylor’s bail reform measures. 

Mr. Taylor’s political agenda for criminal justice has been embraced by people on the right side of the political spectrum, and they have done it without research and analysis to prove that Mr. Taylor, a funeral director, knows what he’s talking about or that the solutions he proposes actually would result in crime reduction.  A curiosity about these kinds of laws is they have emerged after a Democrat was elected to the attorney general’s office and it’s hard to escape the feeling that it is a Republican effort to control policies of officials elected in a Democratic city.  (We also suspect the Crime Commission’s invisible hand is at work as well.) 

Mr. Taylor’s bail “reform” proposal is more about political pandering than solving an actual problem.  Bail is largely misunderstood by the public which is regularly critical about it, assuming that almost everyone out of bail commits another crime.  The actual facts tell a different story: Less than 1% of people out on bail are arrested for a violent crime and 12.5% are arrested for other charges.  As for the Taylor proposal, the letter offers nothing to support his proposed changes.

  • Maintain and increase the hiring and retention bonuses for Tennessee Highway Patrol Officers on duty in Shelby County. 

This has always sounded good on the surface but there are questions about how seamlesss THP has worked with MPD and if THP officers are actually trained for urban law enforcement.  There is no data we’ve seen that shows what the results have been.  

Partisan Posturing 

It’s not unusual for the Chamber to express its priorities for each session of the Tennessee Legislation and there is no question that the 170 businesspeople who signed the letter are rightly concerned but its strongly partisan, if not strident, tone and the intemperate accompanying comments by Richard Smith and Ted Townsend undercut any hopes for broad community support from the many grassroots groups working thoughtfully on this issue.  

At a time when the business leaders were professing concern about the city’s population decline, some comments spawned rumors that FedEx was leaving Memphis and others made the city sound irredeemable. 

The letter also perpetuated politically driven talking points with “sustained lack of criminal prosecutions” being mentioned twice in the letter.  In turn, while it focused on prosecutions, it failed to mention that MPD only solves one in three crimes.  That means only a minority of criminal offenders enter the criminal justice system in the first place.  In support of its positions, it used trigger words like “organized crime” to describe crimes by juvenile offenders but without any supporting evidence.  

There is a readiness for people, mostly White and conservative, to buy into the political agenda that blames the attorney general who’s been in office 16 months for the violent crime crisis that began several years before he took office.  After all, in the decade before Mr. Mulroy took office, the murder rate increased 142%.  It raises the question of whether the businesspeople would have sent the letter if former Republican Attorney General Amy Weirich had been reelected. 

Read Steve Mulroy as he looks ahead in the new year: “I’m praying that our public discourse stops obsessing on sentence lengths and bail amounts (which will not make us safer)  and instead focuses on how to increase our crime solve rate and decrease our recidivism rate (which will).

Another anomaly of the business community’s involvement is that its letter made no mention of state government’s culpability in the proliferation of guns in Memphis.  To explore the point, the Chairman’s Circle should pay for a study determining the impact of the state’s gun law obsession on Memphis gun crimes and send it to state officials who are in denial about the impact of making guns ubiquitous in all parts of our lives.

Neither did the letter make any mention about the failure of the state’s prison system to rehabilitate felons released into the city and who re-offend as in the case of the man who killed Eliza Fletcher after serving 20 years in a state prison.

Businesses Could Do More

As a general rule, if state government is the answer, you are asking the wrong question.  The Lee Administration and the Tennessee Legislature are driven by partisan talking points and political motivations only.  Decisions based on research and in-depth analysis are as scarce as allowing Democrats in the Legislature to introduce legislation.

Meanwhile, cities comparable to Memphis are reducing their crime rates with innovations and new strategies – some of which are pursued by Mr. Mulroy – but state government continues to emphasize the arrest more people and invoke longer sentences philosophy that has done nothing to change the negative trend lines for crime in the city.

If local businesses want to maximize their impact and show effective leadership, they could pay for experts who could bring additional intellectual capital to this crucial discussion in Memphis.  It would allow decisions to be made on facts and data rather than the political magic answer of the moment, but in addition, explain what the facts are saying about crime here and opportunities to reduce it.

Memphis is an anomaly these days as city after city reports drops in crime to historic lows.  That’s where the answers to reducing crime are most likely to be found – in cities that are making it happen, not in the state government which has treated Memphis as a punch line for years.

That’s why it would make much more sense – and they would be acting in a truly businesslike way – if the Chairman’s Circle led the way in funding the development of a plan of action based on expert help and authoritative analysis – something sort of like what they would do in their businesses. 

Government Acting Like A Business

Business leaders are often saying that government should act more like a business.  Here’s a chance for them to show how that’s done.  

Memphis took a direct hit in comments by some business leaders and the wounds are especially deep since they are made by people who know the city best.   Because of it, Memphis needs to send the unmistakable message that the city and its people are taking assertive, strong action to produce innovative strategies.  Rather than look to Memphis as a high-crime city drifting into the future, the city can be seen as a place rolling up its collective sleeves to work together with the best experts on a shared crime reduction plan.

Josh Spickler, Just City: We know what reduces crime

A final note: The business leaders say they were motivated to mail their letter because of the population decline for Memphis.  But the truth is that the city’s population has been dropping since the 1970s.  We simply masked it with serial annexations. 

Since 1970, roughly 170,000 people have moved beyond the 1970 Memphis city borders but it was ignored because annexations were propping up the Memphis population. 

It’s worth remembering that the sprawl was supported by the Chamber of Commerce and the business community who called it “growth” when it was in fact a historic out-migration of Memphians. 

It’s also worth remembering that state government blew up the annexation process although Memphis and the county’s municipalities had signed agreements that agreed on their annexation reserve areas.  These contractual agreements were ignored by state government which dynamited the process in Tennessee in pursuit of political points from suburban voters.

Ultimately, the state’s injection of its politics into local annexation policies led to the deannexation of several areas that removed about 11,000 people from the city’s population.

It’s only one of the ways in which we already suffer here from state government’s “help” and it’s why we should not look to Nashville for the solutions for our problems, crime and otherwise.


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