NOLA’s Good Example 

The Crescent City offers Memphis a guide to the solution of our raging homicide problem.

Last week was Thanksgiving, and more than 200 Memphis citizens were not able to celebrate with their families this year because we, as a community, do not have a handle on homicides. The murder rate in Memphis is up 40 percent from last year. That is totally unacceptable, and we have to do more than get mad about it. There is no silver bullet, but there are three steps that I believe will make a difference and put us on the path to meaningful solutions.

click to enlarge Steve Basar
  • Steve Basar

The first and most important step is defining the problem. In Memphis, crime is epidemic. Of 80 cities across the United States with a population of more than 250,000, Memphis is in the top 10 for murders, robbery, property crime, aggravated assault, and burglary. While all crime is deplorable, I believe that reducing homicides should be the number-one priority of county government, city government, and the law enforcement community. If we can all agree that reducing murder is our number-one objective, then we can get to work on achieving our objective. We need a comprehensive murder-reduction strategy.

The second step is to break the problem down and find root causes. I have been looking at the statistics in Memphis for a few years, and we can identify a small segment of the population that is responsible for a majority of the homicides. The data clearly shows that African-American males between the ages of 19 and 29 represent more than half of both the victims and perpetrators of our homicides, and yet this group constitutes less than 8 percent of our population. When faced with the data, it is difficult to ignore the obvious need to find effective strategies to address this population if we are to stem the rise in murders. In fact, this is exactly what other communities have realized and are now addressing.

The third step is to identify specific strategies to address the root causes. The city of New Orleans has a strategy called "NOLA for Life," and I believe we need to adopt a similar strategy. The number-one pillar of the New Orleans approach is embedded in the motto "stop the shootings." If we want to be successful, we need to have a similarly clear message, and all the resources in city and county government should be tasked to finding and implementing solutions. The Health Department, Community Services, Law Enforcement, and Shelby County Schools need to work together in this endeavor. It will require extensive cooperation and coordination, but if we are to be successful, it must be done.

New Orleans has seen sustainable success reducing homicides over the past four years because that city is focusing on its at-risk population of young African-American males. One small example is a midnight basketball league that attracted more than 10,000 participants this spring. The success of New Orleans is being recognized and copied by other cities, such as Gary, Indiana. We can and should move quickly to begin implementing the most successful programs from New Orleans, and we should cast a wide net to see what is working elsewhere.

We also need to direct resources toward crime prevention on the order of the data-driven analysis of Milwaukee's Homicide Review Commission. We need a comprehensive, systematic approach to be able to identify the most at-risk youth and the areas where additional resources need to be allocated.

We cannot arrest and prosecute our way out of crime. We have a high number of youth not working, who have criminal records, and who feel disconnected from society. We are not the only community facing high crime, but we have been unusually lacking in the resolve to define the problem and put together an effective strategy to address it. That can begin to end this week. I am asking the County Commission to adopt a "Memphis for Life" strategy, and I propose appropriate budget amendments to allocate resources toward the initiative. We can choose to be leading the nation in homicides, or we can do something about it. I choose action.

Steve Basar is a member of the Shelby County Commission and chairman of the budget and finance committee.

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