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Ganging Up

To combat violence, police create a new unit, but don't plan to confront gang members.

A newly formed group of law enforcement officials will investigate all aggravated assaults as aggressively as homicides. The Felony Assault Unit (FAU), unveiled last week, consists of eight members from the Memphis Police Department (MPD) and three prosecutors from the attorney general's office. The unit was established to manage the violent crime wave that has plagued the Memphis area recently. In the past month, MPD logged 10 homicides in one week.

Police admit that gangs are responsible for many of the city's violent crimes. Two youngsters were killed during the high-homicide week when opposing gangs waged a shootout in Raleigh. An e-mail also circulated this month warning of a gang initiation involving killing a woman and child at local shopping centers. But when asked if the department considered talking with gang leaders to curb the violent incidents, police director Larry Godwin said MPD has no plans to meet with gang leaders.

Local pastor Kenneth Whalum Jr. doesn't understand why not.

"You and I know that the police know who the gang leaders are. Why don't we at least come to the table and talk with them?" he told the Flyer. "It may be impossible, but how can you just respond by saying 'We don't deal with gang members'? Well, yes, you do. You deal with the results of their activity all the time."

Prior to the creation of FAU, aggravated assault cases were handled by the General Assignment Bureau (GAB), but overburdened caseloads meant inadequate time and resources devoted to the crimes.

"GAB usually doesn't have time to track down witnesses and get confessions and statements from them," said FAU lieutenant Mike Miller.

Even without the new unit, MPD boasts an 84 percent solve rate in these type crimes, but it's the amount of violent criminal activity that has them and other community leaders worried. In the past year, the number of aggravated assaults per month has increased from 175 to more than 200. Late last year, when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton and Congressman Harold Ford Jr. announced plans for a peace task force, Whalum was one of the first clergy members on board.

When that group failed to materialize, Whalum took his message of peace to the airwaves with a radio show and television program.

"For the second time now, I'm asking law enforcement to meet with these [gang] leaders because they want the same things out of life that we do," he said. "Gang leaders tell me that they want their children to live in peace and have something out of life. What perpetuates the violence in this community is sheer poverty and hopelessness." n

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