Seeking Safety: Memphis mayor confronts crime problem head-on
Posted January 26, 2014
Memphis, Tenn. — Mayor A C Wharton doesn't sugarcoat anything when it comes to the major violent crime problems facing Memphis.
And that means he is not afraid to say that the biggest contributors to the problem are young black men.
"That kind of admission is critical because as long as you are in any kind of state of denial, you are going to close your eyes to some things that you really ought to see," Wharton says. "Some think you shouldn't single out a particular race, but if you look at who's coming into your jail, who's coming into juvenile court, you can't play this idealistic dream that they are no worse than anybody else."
Wharton is 69 and has lived in the same inner-city home for more than 40 years. He has worked in public service longer than that. He's a street-smart philosopher who has risen to the top job in a city of 655,000 where, as a black man, he was once a second-class citizen.
Before becoming mayor in 2009, Wharton was the mayor of Shelby County. Before that, he worked as a public defender in Memphis for 22 years. He earned his law degree from the University of Mississippi and spent years teaching there.
Wharton cares deeply about the downtrodden. He says he understands them. He's just having a hard time reaching them.
But he's trying, again and again, with nontraditional approaches, because, he says, the city cannot keep trying logical approaches to try to reach illogical people.
Wharton loves to tell stories. In one, he talks about a young boy who grew up watching his uncle sell stolen goods. When he got old enough, the boy started doing the same thing.
"You were able to get that bike you wanted, that pair of shoes you wanted, because in your environment the illogical did work," Wharton says, sitting in his office overlooking the Mississippi River. "When you have grown up in an illogical world, you inherit the illogical. It goes on from generation to generation."
Fayetteville Police Chief Harold Medlock does not make the same kind of bold pronouncements about who is responsible for crime that Wharton does. But, like Wharton, Medlock says he believes in nontraditional responses to crime.
At a recent police focus meeting, Medlock directed officers to talk to the parents of teenagers suspected of committing several break-ins in hopes that the parents would intervene before police made arrests.
Medlock, who became Fayetteville's police chief about a year ago, thinks children need more mentors and more constructive things to do. He wants to start a police recreational league, and he recently took heat for turning the other way to complaints of youths playing basketball in the streets.
Wharton advocates many of those same nontraditional methods. What is important in the battle against crime, he says, is to understand the people you are trying to reach.
"You really have to be in tune with what you are dealing with," he says. "You can't sit down in a war room somewhere and look at some crime reports and say, 'I know what is going on here.' You really have to have folks who are willing to get dirt under their fingernails and find out what is really going on, which requires getting down to their level."
Wharton tells another story, this one about a 14-year-old boy who towers over his mother and refuses to listen to her. She goes to work and he is left to his own devices. His family life has no structure.
"In so many of our neighborhoods, kids are tumbled along just like a tumbleweed in an Arizona desert," Wharton says. "Whichever way the wind blows, that's the way they are going to go.
"So many of these young folks have never been exposed to the alternatives. They have never been exposed to something that will stimulate them, that will kind of get them to think through what they are doing.
"They are just acting, quite frankly, in accord with the norm, which involves gang-banging, stealing, smoking dope, whatever. But once somebody else comes in and says, 'Hey man, I used to run in this neighborhood but I cut that stuff loose and look what I'm doing now. ...'"
That's why Wharton created Memphis Guns Down in two troubled neighborhoods. It's a project funded through Bloomberg Philanthropies of New York that seeks to reduce gun violence.
"It's the access to guns that takes a young punk, who's trembling, scared of his own shadow. If he can get his hands on a pistol, he's Charles Atlas. He's Superman," Wharton says. "You get access to a gun and crack cocaine and you've got a volatile combination, so we zeroed in on that."
Wharton says the city has gotten tough on criminals who cannot be redeemed. For others, he says, the city offers alternatives, such as literacy and work-incentive programs.
As part of Memphis Guns Down, the city offers Summer Night Lights, opening a park at night for movies, swimming and games.
Wharton wants to see churches across the city start doing similar things.
"For every Friday night that you have 200 kids on a parking lot, not being engaged in violence, being victimized by violence, witnessing it, that is a seed," he says. "Those are the seeds of success throughout their particular neighborhoods."
Wharton also has started a program that offers free lunches during the summer months, the only catch being that those who eat will also be counseled.
"Again, it goes back to the nontraditional," Wharton says. "Whoever thought of using a hot lunch as a crimefighting tool?"
The mayor has taken criticism from hard-liners who think he is being soft on crime. For them, he has a quick response:
"I would much prefer to save a fool from his folly than to try to save the city from the consequences of a fool's folly."
Staff writer Greg Barnes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 486-3525.