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magazine home > archives > summer 2004 > features

U of M professors are helping law enforcement officials fight crime on a number of different fronts. And their inventive efforts in tackling deeply rooted problems such as gun violence are generating positive results.

The Good Fight
by Jamie Peters

The photographs of more than 100 people stare out at the crowd of several hundred on an overcast Saturday afternoon in Memphis. The pictures - many of children that likely were snapped at family gatherings, photography studios or for school yearbooks - should have been among the first to fill a large collection of photo albums that tell a life's story from childhood to adulthood. Instead, these photos serve as some of the final glimpses of lives stopped midstream by violent crimes.

 
Mark Luttrell
 
The Shelby County Sheriff's Office, led by Mark H. Luttrell Jr. (MPA '74), along with the Memphis Police Department is collaborating with the U of M's Center for Community Criminology and Research.

Among the large audience at the mid-May "Save Our Youth" campaign to reduce youth violence in Memphis, a gospel youth choir on the stage at Overton Park sings, "I've got a feeling everything's gonna be alright," beneath a white banner that reads in red lettering:

"Stop the Killing / Our Youth . . . Our Future . . ."

The upbeat music shakes loose some smiles and a bit of swaying from audience members that stops just short of actual dancing. Some continue to suffer from losses like that of Memphis resident Stevie Moore, who organized this event after losing his son, 23 year-old Prentice Moore, in a 2003 shooting at the now-closed Denim & Diamonds nightclub. The proceedings kick off Freedom from Unnecessary Negatives, a community-based economic and social program for youth and young adults, founded by Moore. Showing their support, a number of top government officials are present, including U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton, Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, Memphis Police Department director James Bolden ('77 B.A.) and Shelby County Sheriff Mark H. Luttrell Jr. (MPA '74).

All are resolute in their tough stances toward crime as they address the audience.

"By being here today you are making a statement that you are fed up with violence in the community," says Gibbons.

The desired result is simple: "We simply must stop destroying each other," Bolden says.

But achieving that aim is more difficult.

"Solving the problems of our community is going to take more than police officers and jails," says Luttrell.

As forces from all corners of the Memphis community collaborate to tackle crime in the community, faculty associated with the University of Memphis' Center for Community Criminology and Research are participating in a number of partnerships and initiatives with local law enforcement agencies. Their far-flung efforts include combating gang activity and gun violence, training officers with the latest techniques, and collecting information on criminal activity more efficiently through sophisticated technology. "In the criminal justice world, sound research drives evidence-based changes in public policy," says Michael J. Heidingsfield, president and CEO of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission. That organization helped establish the Center for Community Criminology and Research in 2001 through a grant from the Plough Foundation, which is expected to run through 2005. At that time the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission expects to ink a "shared partnership agreement" in the center that "does not involve the flow of money," Heidingsfield says.

Armed with data

The Memphis Police Department reported 113 homicides in 2003 compared with 132 in 2002. Among other violent crimes, rapes were basically flat at 543 incidents; robberies declined to 3,474 in 2003 from 4,327 in 2002; and aggravated assaults hovered around 4,500 incidents. In property crimes, burglaries jumped to 16,807 in 2003 from 15,912 in 2002, and larcenies nudged up to 30,110 from 29,835 in 2002. Auto thefts, however, declined to 8,205 incidents in 2003 from 8,980 in 2002.

James Bolden

James Bolden (BA '77), head of the MPD, is part of the collaboration which hones in on crime-fighting strategies that deal with crimes from illegal possession of guns to gangs.

In a separate measure of a larger area, Luttrell says all crime incidents - violent and property-related - in Shelby County were up 10 percent through May 2004, compared with the same period in 2003. "You might make the argument that with the CompStat program we're doing a better job with reporting crime," says Luttrell, referring to the data-tracking system the office instituted a little more than a year ago. Luttrell was quoting the figure in his efforts to fight the proposed budget cuts for his department. "The reality of it is that our budget is based on one figure. And now we've got this higher figure, and that certainly is not an argument for decreasing the budget."

In explaining the MPD statistics for 2003, director Bolden attributes the increase in the two areas of property crimes to the prolonged economic downturn as well as the severe storm that ravaged Memphis in summer 2003.

The decline in homicides, according to Bolden, is partly due to the Project Safe Neighborhoods program, a nationwide effort to reduce gun crimes through aggressive prosecution and strategies that deter illegal possession of firearms. "We've made some significant inroads in confiscating weapons," Bolden says.

The U of M is playing an integral role in the program as the research partner through a team led by Richard Janikowksi, associate professor and chair of Criminology and Criminal Justice Department. The Memphis effort, which began in early 2002, is a joint initiative among the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Shelby County District Attorney's Office, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) and local law enforcement. Janikowski's team analyzes elements such as ATF data, using a geographic information system to illustrate the "hot spots" of crime locations and where weapons are recovered. The team also uses statistical analysis "to get a picture of these distributions and tends over time," says Janikowski.

The program deploys an intensive media campaign of TV and radio spots, billboards and signage on public buses under the slogan "Gun Crime is Jail Time." The U of M team analyzes the placement of these ads, including times, days, and stations of the ad appearances, and it measures their effectiveness through the Mid-South Social Survey Program, according to Janikowski. The team has been charting the potency of Project Safe Neighborhoods, including number of arrests, reasons for the arrests and what kinds of sentences are being handed down. The verdict so far: "The program is beginning to have an impact," says Janikowski, pointing out that the decrease in homicides in 2003 included a substantial decline in gun-related homicides.

Although Bolden says the PSN effort is gaining traction in the community, the illegal possession of guns still remains a deeply rooted problem. "We confiscate thousands of weapons annually right here in the city of Memphis, but they keep coming," Bolden says. "So there are elements that are at work that are supplying weapons to young people, and a lot of the weapons are being stolen maybe in burglaries or thefts of homes here."

Gang activity persists as a significant source of crime in Memphis. The Shelby County District Attorney General's Office has estimated that roughly 125 gangs and approximately 10,000 known gang members exist in Shelby County, although Bolden says that the gangs "here are not very well-organized." The Metro Gang Unit, which comprises MPD officers and Shelby County Sheriff's deputies, continues to work to curb gang-related crimes.

Under this effort, Janikowski collaborates with the unit on a project called Operation Courage, which has evolved into an effort under Project Safe Neighborhoods. Janikowksi and a research team at the U of M use geographic information systems to chart the areas where gang offenses occur, identify the involved gangs and the types of offenses.

"That gives (gang unit officers) an idea of where things are occurring because we're able to use geographic information systems to map that kind of activity and analyze it," Janikowski says.

Luttrell, who has worked closely with Janikowski on projects, says the research has provided valuable information to law enforcement officials that has enabled them to make arrests. "Professor Janikowski has done a marvelous job in tracking some of these problems, collecting the data on them and working on initiatives to combat them," Luttrell says.

Connecting the dots

In an aim to facilitate the sharing of information between agencies, which is directed toward thwarting crime, the Center for Community Criminology and Research is undertaking the ambitious Shared Urban Data System (SUDS) project. The effort provides a portal into multiple databases from a wide range of area agencies and U of M research, ranging from organizations involved with crime and safety to the Child Health Data Consortium. The Center's Community Information Project, directed by Cindy Martin, is playing a technical role in developing the effort, which is housed on its network server at http://suds.memphis.edu/. The ongoing project pulls together all of the different agencies' information in one common area that offers data to the public and more secure, confidential information that can only be accessed by approved users, which might include policy makers and researchers, says Martin. The U of M also is providing query tools, so agencies can access their own and other agencies' data for statistical analysis. Features will include an interactive mapping system for relevant data. "It's got advantages in that it allows most agencies to share information, which they have not been able to or willing to do in the past," says Martin. "And they have been willing to do it now in a vehicle for that sharing, which is so important because agency 'A' doesn't know what agency 'B' is doing."

 
Lorenzo Scott: Reunion in Heaven (of the 'House of Prayer Children')
 
Richard Janikowski, head of the U of M's Center for Community Criminology and Research.

The database for MPD, which Martin expected to be up and running by mid-summer, will feature data such as offenses and incidents. It will contain information similar to that of the MPD's Community Safety Information System (CSIS), of which U of M researchers helped facilitate the development about four years ago. In contrast, while the CSIS effort is utilized mainly by law enforcement officials, the SUDS data will be more geared toward public users and researchers. Other agencies might also find the information useful. For instance, Martin says the local Homeland Defense district, a collection of various agencies, has expressed interest in getting involved with SUDS and conceivably could use the data in building a strategy around homeland security.

Training, from A to Z

During a recent two-day class titled Basic Crime Analysis at the Mid-South Training Institute, instructor Dr. Robyn R. Mace, a visiting assistant professor at the U of M, encourages the 18 attendees to discuss solutions to the persistent challenges of law enforcement. "It's about matching the limited resources that we have to the unlimited demands placed on our organizations," Mace says to the class members, some of whom are dressed in their officer uniforms.

The groups huddle together to discuss such issues as manpower shortages, motor vehicle theft and misunderstandings stemming from flaws in organizational structure. One of the students in attendance, MPD officer Paula Cage, says the course allows her to swap stories with officers she normally wouldn't come into contact with. "We learn from some of the older officers in the class," Cage says.

Basic Crime Analysis is just one of 60 different courses the Mid-South Training Institute is offering this year. Started as a joint initiative between the U of M and the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission (the commission has shifted into an advisory role), the institute has rapidly grown from just several classes in late 1999, says director Dennis Joyner. The institute, located in the U of M Carrier Center in Collierville, employs instructors from the U of M and beyond, including esteemed law enforcement veterans such as Richard Ayres, formerly a special agent with the FBI and faculty member at the FBI Academy faculty in Quantico, Va.

Since its inception, the institute has added classes in hot areas such as identity theft and crime prevention through environmental design. Officers from 19 states have attended classes under the program, and Joyner estimates that 750 to 1,000 will attend the institute this year. "One of the things I've found out with police officers through the years is 95 percent of them want to do a good job," says Joyner, the former chief of the Collierville Police Department. "The problem is they're sent out to situations that they don't have the particular training to handle." The institute provides a cost-effective way for many area law enforcement organizations to offer their employees additional training, according to Joyner. The program also has offered some specialized off-site training for such organizations as the MPD and the Shelby County Sheriff's Office.

Although the MPD Academy offers courses, the institute is a valuable resource because it uses a number of top experts in the field of criminal justice to teach its classes, Bolden says. And its proximity to Memphis enables the MPD to give additional training to large numbers of officers and avoid significant travel expenses. "It's been a godsend for the police department," Bolden says.

It's just one of the many ongoing efforts to strengthen the chain that links educational resources of the U of M with well-trained police officers. And when that happens, greater prospects for safer communities are sure to follow.

 

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