Wednesday, November 19, 2008

City Council Vote Is About More Than Police Recruiting

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.


Anonymous said...

I agree with all of the comments. I have lived in Memphis for five years and it amazes me how the City Council members treat each other and the public. Not to mention the constant fighting with the Mayor. It has been hard for me to connect with this city at the government level or even care to connect with all the constant fighting. I had hope for the new council, but only time will tell.

Aaron said...

I have been numb all day with one thought bouncing in my brain. The MPD is unable to find qualified applicants to fill 200 currently vacant police positions that start at an annual salary of $39K and only require your High School diploma. We don't have 200 qualified applicants in the entire Shelby county area??

When our problem boils down to failing to instill desire to work and/or hard work ethic in our city children, we are in for societal meltdown. This is probably not any new revelation to many people but it just hit me over the head like a ton of bricks.

In the meantime, let's all think about turkey day- Happy Thanks giving!

yuppie_scum said...

While you clearly have a lot of valid points, I'm saddened that you didn't give any credence at all to the move by the Council to fight flight. Let's not forget that many of Memphis' problems - including crime - can be traced directly to the flight from our city and the local, state and federal policies that encouraged that abandonment of the city. The City Council is making a principled stand against that flight, something that, at the very least, ought to be recognized.

gatesofmemphis said...

Why didn't proponents put a charter amendment on the ballot to relax the residency provision (because it is a charter amendment that Memphians voted on that created the requirement)? Why go through this every 2 weeks or month, when the citizens could decide themselves?

Anonymous said...

It's too late. Memphis is dead. What a waste.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post Smart City. I was shocked at the outcome of the vote.All of us, regardless of where we live,want to feel safe when we come to Memphis for whatever reason.It was very disappointing to realize that the police recruiting search area could not be expanded.

If there are hiring discrepancies as indicated by one councilor, they certainly need to be investigated and addressed.That councilor should willingly share the information with the appropriate agency director.

packrat said...

Is it going to take Fedex moving their HQ and about 5000 jobs to Indianapolis to get these morons' attention? Apparently so....I hate it, but this city is already past the tipping point.

Rick said...

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.

Actually, Bob Herbert's article on the re-election of Congressman Cohen praised the way that Memphis has grown.

Smart City Consulting said...

yuppiescum: We were precisely writing about flight. This vote will send more people fleeing away from Memphis than the Council could ever have forced to live here. It's just short-sighted and really poor public policy. And at the end of the day, it's not about politics, or about where we wish people would live, it's about creating a city where people will choices will choose to live.

It's about choice, not about force, and that fundamentally is where the Council is wrong.

Smart City Consulting said...


Thanks for the link to the Herbert column. That's why we qualified it as hard news stories.

Anonymous said...

Just maybe, you are stuck in rut. Is there a new paradigm that has escaped your notice?

I submit an Economist 2009 prediction.

JerseyJoe said...

Why does everyone assume that the answer to the hiring problems is this change in target recruiting population? Are residents of predominantly rural counties more likely to be effective at community policing than Shelby County residents; more likely to understand their neighborhoods or the stress of living in an unairconditioned apartment in August in Memphis? Aaron asked a significant question which deserves more discussion by the Council- How come "We don't have 200 qualified applicants in the entire Shelby county area??"
What does Human Resources have to say about the problem? Why has recruiting been ineffective? Are we paying enough? What are competing cities doing? The Fire Department has used recruiting bonuses to great effect. Have the police tried that? Assuming the applicants whose qualifications are under question are not suitable for police work, where is the next phalanx of applicants? Until the Council is sure that the HR process is effective and appropriate, this debate may be moot.
How many police will leave the city or county given the chance? Has anyone looked at the tradeoff of the loss of police living in city neighborhoods vs. picking up some portion of the 200 additional officers needed? Why the number 200? Has anyone asked the Mayor or the police administration what the optimal number of police would be? Maybe, given the extent of the problem, a thousand more are needed. Why the restraint? Perhaps we should be less critical of the seven "nay-saying" councilmen and councilwomen, unless we are willing to pay the real cost of making the city safe.
From my own experience of the decline of Newark, NJ, a key turning point was when white flight hit with a vengeance and the upper and middle class fled to the suburbs. Veteran city officials from that era point to a critical mistake- the city, under employee pressure, rescinded its rule that city employees had to live in the city. The entire civil service left en-masse. The city has yet to recover.

Anonymous said...

Memphis- The city of the Dead.

With all the racial strife as well as the insane level of crime, whats the point in staying ?

I've got a wonderful job at St Jude, and feel that is my true calling in life, but if I've got to live in a war zone as well as share a city with people AND a Mayor and 1/2 a City Council that want me GONE because of my skin color, well, give me one good reason why I should stay ?

I make a very good professional salary, but at this point, I too am looking and moving up and out.

That means more tax revenue lost.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I both came to Memphis from different regions of the country to attend Rhodes. We stayed post graduation and have lived here for 3 post-college years. I am an accountant and have a masters degree from the U of M. My wife is currently getting a second degree in Nursing. After Herenton won again last fall, we both agreed that we cannot stay in Memphis long term. We will both be leaving after she graduates. I just hope we are killed before then...

packrat said...

Any chance we could get anon
11:50's post removed? and any chance we could get THAT person to leave Memphis?

Smart City Consulting said...

packrat: Thanks for the notice about the jackass that continues to write obscene rants about a Memphis leader. We apologize that it remained up as long as it did, but we were in meetings and wasn't away of it.

This isn't the first time that he has written these screeds, but hopefully, it will be the last.

Anonymous said...

[quote]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. [/quote]
They in complicity with the rich and the impoverished are telling young people and middle class people NOT TO MOVE TO MEMPHIS loud and clear.
I moved here 4.5 years ago and wish I never had.

[quote]The MPD is unable to find qualified applicants to fill 200 currently vacant police positions that start at an annual salary of $39K and only require your High School diploma. We don't have 200 qualified applicants in the entire Shelby county area?? [/quote]
Maybe you should sign up for Cyberwatch and then start looking up your neighbors on to see how many are felons. I found out that 75% were and that there were over a thousand child molesters walking around free, most breaking the registration law, many more that have come here because they've heard there is no law in Memphis.
I have NO PROBLEM thinking that 200 positions can not be filled by residents.
I hear people (police) say there are over 40,000 known gang members in Memphis.
Don't worry, they'll all be starving to death soon enough.

Anonymous said...

Smart City... I learned the "game of leap frog" many moons ago. It had a fundamental fairness embedded in it... sometimes you're up and sometimes you're down but neither always. The problem here in Memphis is those six (6) councilmen on the losing side don't want to respect the rules of the game!

Damn it, it's time for them to be leaped... get down!

Hell, Bartlett, Germantown and Millington have the very RESIDENCY requirements for their employees that are being opposed for Memphis' employees!

Signed: A mover and shaker that's doing every damn thing I can to ensure that the majority vote remains as it is! Bank it!

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