Seeking Safety: The Fayetteville Observer's search for crime solutions heads to Memphis
Posted January 26, 2014
Memphis, Tenn. — When the gunfire started, 9-year-old Keyshun Foster threw down his bicycle and ran as fast as he could toward home.
"The bullets were coming in all directions," said Keyshun's grandmother, Susie Williams, who watched the gunfight from her house in the rundown Riverside neighborhood of South Memphis.
One bullet left a hole in Williams' front window. Another broke the glass in her storm door. Yet another drilled through the siding. Keyshun made it home safely, but when the shooting between rival street gangs stopped, five people were down.
The street battle in September of last year was just one eruption of violence in a neighborhood that Amy Weirich, the Shelby County district attorney general, described as a war zone.
This time, though, Memphis and Shelby County were prepared to fight back.
A newly formed gang unit –- which brought together investigators from local and federal agencies – had been gathering information and identifying gang members in the neighborhood for months. After the September shootout, the city attorney's office took information from the gang unit to prepare an injunction against members of the Riverside Rollin' 90's Neighborhood Crips.
Using a 2009 state nuisance-abatement law, city officials drafted a petition to create a "safety zone" in the neighborhood - a 4.6-square-mile area where members of the Riverside gang were barred from so much as standing together in public.
Two weeks after the gunfight, Memphis leaders held a news conference at the intersection where Keyshun barely escaped a bullet. There, in front of an abandoned house bearing gang graffiti, they announced the safety zone and a judge's order that anyone found violating the injunction would be held in contempt.
Since that day, Keyshun's grandmother says, she has been able to sit on her front porch and drink coffee in peace for the first time in years. Weirich says police have not received a single call of shots being fired in the neighborhood.
Using nuisance-abatement laws against gangs is not an idea unique to Memphis. Fayetteville has successfully used North Carolina's law to warn gang members that they faced arrest if they showed up at the Dogwood Festival.
What is novel is how the use of the nuisance law fits into a coordinated approach to fighting crime in Memphis. The city on the Mississippi River has managed to bring together the resources of local governments and school officials, politicians, business leaders, preachers, nonprofit organizations and everyday residents. All of them are working together on common, well-defined goals that lead to real results – such as the safety zone in the Riverside neighborhood.
The strategy that Memphis is using has come to be known as collective impact. Communities across the country are using its principles to take on crime and other complex social problems.
In Cincinnati, groups are working together to bring substantial improvement to public schools. Communities along the Elizabeth River in Virginia are joining forces to clean up the waterway. In Somerville, Mass., they are fighting childhood obesity. In Chicago, the target is finding jobs for people in housing projects.
In Memphis and Shelby County, the collective impact approach is not only being used to reduce crime, it is also being employed in the effort to boost economic development, make government more efficient, improve education and bolster the health of residents.
"I'm not going to say we are roaringly successful," said Mark Luttrell, Shelby County's mayor. "I am going to say we have found a model that is allowing us to make progress. We have found a process that is working for us."
In Fayetteville, officials are planning a crime summit – tentatively scheduled for April 11 – to bring together people from across the community. City Manager Ted Voorhees said the crime-fighting strategies being used in Memphis are similar to what Fayetteville is aiming to kick off with that crime summit.
A C Wharton had never heard of collective impact that Sunday afternoon in August 2005 when he called Bill Gibbons to plead for something – anything – to help reduce violent crime.
At the time, Wharton was the mayor of Shelby County, a position equivalent to Cumberland County's manager. Gibbons was the chief prosecutor.
Crime in Memphis and Shelby County was off the charts, with the second-worst rate of violent crime in the nation.
"A C, I could tell he was really stressed out," said Gibbons, who is now commissioner of Tennessee's Department of Safety and Homeland Security. "He said, 'Everywhere I go in the community, all people want to talk about is this crime problem. We have got to do something.'"
The next day, Gibbons said, he, Wharton and Luttrell, then the Shelby County sheriff, met in Wharton's office.
"We quickly agreed that what we needed was a collective plan that everybody would buy into," Gibbons said. "It would be our road map on how to tackle this problem. I mean, we agreed on that within about five minutes of meeting."
It would prove a lot harder getting all the major players to the table to develop a plan of action.
"That is not always easy," Gibbons said. "You have turf issues; you have public sector, private sector; and we were talking about getting four different levels of government together - federal, state, county and city. ... That's kind of like herding cats."
But Memphis and Shelby County did have some things in their favor.
One was Memphis Tomorrow, a group of powerful business leaders in the city. Memphis Tomorrow was already contemplating collective impact-style strategies.
Wharton, now the mayor of Memphis, and his group joined forces with Memphis Tomorrow to launch a steering committee called Memphis Fast Forward. Ben Adams, head of the Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission and vice chairman of Memphis Tomorrow, remembers the formative days.
"You have to have leadership in the community that says, 'Hey, we have got to do something. This is unacceptable. Let's get all the players together, the great minds together, and let's develop some strategies, a plan,'" he said.
A year later, working closely with a consultant and a criminologist at Memphis State University, the city had a 15-goal plan to fight crime called Operation: Safe Community.
The five-year plan, at memphiscrime.org, was rolled out to the public in late 2006 during a forum attended by about 500 city and county leaders, said Blair Taylor, president of Memphis Tomorrow.
Five years later, according to statistics provided by the city, violent crime in Memphis was down by 23 percent, property crime by 26percent, business robberies by 68 percent and bank robberies by 61percent.
No one in Memphis seems satisfied with those numbers – last year, Forbes magazine called the city the fourth most dangerous in the country – but leaders are not giving up. They say it took a long time for the city to get into its current mess, and it will take a long time to reverse course.
But they are so intrigued with their collective impact strategies that in 2012 they decided to build off their progress and adopt a second five-year plan.
Fayetteville's crime problem has never been as severe as the situation in Memphis, but it has been a persistent drag on the community's life and self-image.
If there is a moment when the chronic problem turned into a crisis demanding immediate attention, it might have come the day after Halloween. That's when Police Chief Harold Medlock stood behind a microphone and gave reporters details of three shooting deaths that had happened within five hours of one another.
Not long afterward, pastors from black churches in Fayetteville banded together and announced a "Stop the Violence" rally. The rally led to a number of calls for action and a meeting in December among some of Fayetteville's most influential people - Medlock, Mayor Nat Robertson, schools Superintendent Frank Till Jr., Councilman Bill Crisp, District Attorney Billy West, pastors and others.
More crime-fighting initiatives were announced in the city about the same time.
Medlock and Voorhees, the city manager, have been working on a plan to beef up the police force.
Meanwhile, the Center for Emerging Business sponsored a luncheon this month billed as the first in a series to help businesses fight crime. The city planned a forum to "bring the community together to make Fayetteville a success." The forum was pushed back because of bad weather.
While those efforts reflect a growing commitment to resolving Fayetteville's crime problems, some city leaders don't think enough is being done.
Councilman Crisp wonders why little progress has been made on his recommendations to create task forces to fight crime and to boost economic development. The City Council approved both task forces in August.
"They are there in name only," he said.
Some leaders say Fayetteville should use a collaborative approach – something like collective impact – to organize its crime-reduction efforts.
Fayetteville has tried collaborative efforts before. Programs with names such as MetroVisions, Study Circles and Greater Fayetteville Futures all attempted to find collective solutions. All had some success, but none had the long-term staying power of the efforts in Memphis.
Dr. Robin Jenkins, a Fayetteville resident and former deputy director of the state Department of Public Safety's Division of Juvenile Justice, thinks he knows why.
"In the end, collective impact is a more formalized, politically committed structure than those used previously in Fayetteville and Cumberland County," he wrote in an email response to a question for this story. Collective impact works, he wrote, because it lays out a clear program for setting and achieving goals and for measuring success. "It isn't just planning and all process," Jenkins wrote. "It is about outcomes."
The Memphis program exemplifies the level of commitment necessary to a successful collaborative approach. After a year of data-driven research and thorough discussion, Memphis and Shelby County leaders chose their 15 crime-fighting initiatives and assigned influential community leaders to oversee and be accountable for each one.
The long-standing Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission served as the backbone agency, responsible for ensuring that the hundreds of people behind the initiatives stayed on track.
Among the 15 initiatives:
The Memphis police chief and the county sheriff were tasked with expanding a program to map and respond to "hot spots" of criminal activity. The program, called Blue C.R.U.S.H., and the city's Real Time Crime Center have become models duplicated by other cities.
The U.S. attorney for the Memphis area was assigned to lead broader use of Project Safe Neighborhoods, a national strategy to reduce gun violence. A task force began meeting weekly to review pending criminal cases involving people arrested with guns, identify those with a previous felony conviction and assign the worst cases to federal prosecutors in hopes of stiffer punishment.
Richard Janikowski, a former criminologist with the University of Memphis, led the gang intervention effort that resulted in programs to identify and provide services to gang members in high schools, establish a program to fight crime in apartment complexes and use a program pioneered in High Point, N.C., to reclaim drug-ridden neighborhoods.
Every three months, the leaders of each initiative are required to give detailed reports on the progress they have made. The Memphis-Shelby County Crime Commission drives the effort.
"You've got to have this backbone organization," said Taylor, the Memphis Tomorrow president. "You can't do it without it."
Memphis officials say that holding people accountable for advancing their areas of responsibility is what makes the collective impact strategy sustainable.
"If we just had a plan with nobody responsible for implementing any part of it, I think it would be your typical plan that sits on a shelf and collects dust," said Gibbons, the homeland security commissioner. "But here, for every specific item in it, there is someone who has agreed to get out on a limb and say, 'I will be responsible for getting this done.'"
The second five-year plan expands on some of the best strategies from the original initiative, adds new ones, and focuses heavily on gangs and youth violence, domestic violence and neighborhood blight.
Fayetteville Mayor Nat Robertson has been talking for months about holding a crime summit.
Robertson wants to pull people together - city, county, state and federal law enforcers, judges, prosecutors, Fort Bragg officials, government leaders and others.
Robertson said he has already invited several people to the summit and plans to contact many more.
"We are bringing everyone to the table, tearing down walls, building bridges, whatever the cliche may be, but it's important that we are all in this together for a better community," he said.
Robertson said he likes the collective impact approach to solving crime problems.
"It makes sense. It's common sense. We have got to get out of our silos and look at this as a community issue,'' he said. "We're getting there. Collectively, we can do so much more than we can do individually."
City Council members Jim Arp and Bobby Hurst agree that it will take a collaborative effort - one that stretches beyond the city limits – to start making a dent in the county's crime problem.
"You have to do it in a collaborative manner," Arp said. "It's a collective team approach, so it's going to take everybody with a common goal and a unified plan."
Crime affects everyone and everything, Arp and Hurst said, from economic development to quality of life.
They agree that the city needs new crime-fighting goals, ones that are clearly defined and achievable. Both said they expect the City Council to begin defining goals at a retreat scheduled next month. Their hope is that the goals can be further defined during and after the crime summit in April.
"We have to treat the problem," Arp said. "The problem is we have crime. We are not going to accept it. Now that we've said it, what are we going to do?"
Cumberland County Sheriff Moose Butler said he is on board, too, though he remains cautious because so many crime-fighting initiatives have been tried in Fayetteville only to lose momentum soon after they began.
"If we can get the community more involved, I think that is where the bottom line is," Butler said. "If it is going to be talk and not action, I don't see a great deal that can come from it."
Memphis officials say adopting a collective impact model is not easy. They say politics must be removed from the process. They warn that change won't come swiftly, and people leading the charge will come and go.
But if Fayetteville does it right, they say, collective impact will work.
"This is not a one-agency challenge that we have," said Wharton, the Memphis mayor. "You can't hire enough police officers, enough probation officers. You can't rent enough buildings. But by George, if you get everybody – from our umbrella organization all the way down to the neighborhood level – you can make a difference. I'm convinced."
Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 486-3525.