Gibbons Returns Triumphant

Bill Gibbons, via tn.gov
Bill Gibbons, viatn.gov
Bill Gibbons, the former Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security and a former Shelby County District Attorney General has returned to Memphis to take on crime once again.

Gibbons will join the Public Safety Institute at the University of Memphis to lend his experience as a DA to the study of protecting the public. He’s also re-taking the helm of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission…a post he held until he joined state government in 2011.

While some see the move as an encouraging move to combat rising violent crime, its abundantly clear to me that the prescriptions advocated by Gibbons and other members of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission, dating back to the 2006 inception of Operation Safe Community, have done little if anything to combat crime, while using a high water mark in violent crime to herald their “success”.

A False Hope

I touched on the way the Crime Commission juices the numbers earlier this year in a post about being more honest with the public’s data.

Since the inception of Operation Safe Community (OSC), the Crime Commission has used 2006, a high water mark for violent crime in Shelby County, as a benchmark to measure violent crime. This is where politicians get their numbers when they say “crime is down”. But by any real measure, crime isn’t down, especially not this year, which has seen more murders in the first four months of the year than any time since OSC began.

But even last year and the year before that, the rate of violent crime per 1000 people in Memphis and Shelby County hasn’t changed enough to say “crime is down” with any real confidence. This is because, violent crime, as a general statement has been largely the same in every year except 2006…the high water mark.

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As you can see from the chart above, from 2004 to 2014, violent crime in Shelby County, as defined by the FBI Uniform Crime Report and reported by the various law enforcement agencies in the area, has stayed in a range of 15 to 20 crimes per 1000 people. Of the data available when I made this chart, 2006 was the high water mark.

OSC says they use 2006 because that’s when the program began. It then releases reports like this that on page 10 show decreases in crime on a particular month of the year. But in reality, no real progress is made. Violent crime, as a general statement, remains in the same range its been since a dramatic drop in violent crime nationwide in the 1990’s.

This is exactly why no one believes the crime numbers, and they shouldn’t. Crime may be down from a month in 2006 that no one remembers, but it has basically stayed in the same range for a decade.

An Ounce of Prevention

As it stands, local law enforcement acts as a reactionary force. Part of that just comes with the territory. But there are preventative measures that the police can employ that build trust from the public, and build stronger ties with communities without turning every high crime neighborhood into a military style occupation. I talked about some of those strategies after Toney Armstrong announced his departure from the MPD.

While the OSC 2012-16 plan talks about pilot programs for community oriented policing, with Armstrong’s departure, there’s no guarantee that this will continue.

One good thing in the OSC plan is that it calls for more supportive services outside of law enforcement, like mental health treatment access and job training. These are absolutely necessary tools, but there’s little talk of funding sources. These things are trotted out there to quell the ire of liberals like me, while little work is done to secure additional funding.

At the same time, the plan pushes for harsher sentences and mandatory minimums, which have been repeatedly shown to disproportionately impact racial minorities and the poor, at a time when such strategies are falling out of favor, to say the least.

What’s more, there’s not much evidence that the Crime Commission is following up on the progress for these specific initiatives, except when they warrant a press release.

Beware of False Prophets

There’s no question that organizations like the Crime Commission can be effective tools to help bring groups that otherwise wouldn’t talk to each other, together for a common cause. To the extent that this has happened, the Crime Commission has been successful.

The plan the Commission has laid out has lofty goals. But with such scarce communication with the public, there’s little hope of building the kind of buy-in that would help achieve them. The Commission has mostly been used as a PR tool to pump up the stats of politicians rather than bring these and other diverse groups together or educate the public in a real way. Gibbons was involved in the Commission’s creation. This pattern started with him at the helm. So there’s little reason to believe it will change now that he’s back.

Good intentions not withstanding, the Crime Commission which includes a host of ‘community partners’ suffers from the same problems other such boards do…the people who serve on them may be stakeholders, but they are not representative of the community, and so reaching out to the community is virtually impossible…which makes any real success at achieving the consistently moving target of truly reducing crime in Shelby County improbable at best.

There’s no question that Shelby County has a huge task in working to reduce crime in our community. But lets be real about it, and talk about the warts at least as openly as we talk about the successes. Give people actionable things to do before a call to 911 is necessary rather than relying solely on the constant drumbeat of ‘report the crime’. Make sure law enforcement is building relationships lasting relationships with communities of need.

Side Note: As for Gibbons, he has some baggage that just about everyone has ignored. There have been several instances of prosecutorial misconduct that happened under his watch before he went to Nashville in 2011. But Gibbons hasn’t had to answer to any of these findings. Instead it has been Weirich who has been in the crosshairs.

For certain, Weirich deserves scrutiny where she was directly involved, but Gibbons was Weirich’s mentor before that, and boss while some of this went down. Yet he’s been able to skirt by while Weirich takes the heat.

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