Almost a year into his tenure as state commissioner of Safety and Homeland Security, former district attorney general Bill Gibbons brought interesting tidings on a visit back to Memphis last week, when he spoke at a luncheon of the Memphis Rotary Club.
First, the good news: Major crimes are down some 7.6 percent in Tennessee, through October of this year, said Gibbons. Next, the bad news: Memphis still accounts for almost a quarter of all serious crimes in Tennessee and "drives" the state's crime rate, according to the commissioner. And, where its crime rate is concerned, the state itself continues to rank high among Southeastern states. In 2010 it was number one in major crimes and number two in property crimes.
Some ominous news, as well: A decade after 9/11, terrorism continues to be a major concern of state government but not of the sort most people would imagine. "It isn't just international terrorism," Gibbons told the Rotarians. "It's also domestic terrorism, such as the growing Sovereign Citizens movement, which we are very concerned about." The father and son who were involved in a murderous shoot-out with West Memphis police officers last year were affiliated with such a movement, Gibbons said.
Technically, his department's crime efforts are concentrated in three "buckets," Gibbons said: drug trafficking, violent crime, and repeat offenders.
On the drug front, the meth-lab plague, which used to be confined largely to rural areas, mostly in East Tennessee, has apparently metastasized into the state's urban areas. "If it [methamphetamine] becomes the drug of choice in Memphis, it will make crack cocaine look like a walk in the park," the commissioner warned.
Now, here's a surprise: With all this to worry about, and, although Governor Bill Haslam recently expanded Gibbons' oversight of the state's various crime-fighting agencies and strategies, the commissioner finds that most of his time is taken up with "driver's license operations, just in terms of daily operations."
Gibbons declared that Tennessee is "the only state in the union that allows non-photo driver's licenses." It does so for drivers aged 60 or above — a fact that is one of the complications of the state's controversial new law requiring that all voters present a photo ID at the polls.
As state election officials had done previously, Gibbons estimated the number of Tennesseans with photo-less driver's licenses to be in the range of 126,000. And, of these, only some "7,000 or 8,000" had so far availed themselves of the opportunity to retrofit themselves with photo IDs at state driver's license centers. Some weeks ago, Gibbons announced an agreement with 30 county clerks in Tennessee, including Shelby County clerk Wayne Mashburn, to provide such upgraded driver's licenses free of charge.
The bottom line is that, for better or for worse, and inevitably in any case, the state's chief public safety officer has found what is essentially a political issue crowding more and more into his time. And that is sobering news in itself.