The Legacy of Larry Godwin 

Outgoing Memphis Police Director reshaped the department, lowered crime.

No more white shirts for police department administrators and senior officers: That was one of Memphis police director Larry Godwin's first policy changes in September 2004, a month after the former deputy chief was appointed to the top cop job by then-Mayor Willie Herenton.

"[Rank and file officers] had started calling us white shirts, like we were separate," Godwin told the Flyer in 2004. "We're not separate. We're part of the team, and I want them to know that."

That first policy change was a sign that Godwin wasn't afraid to rock the boat. When Godwin leaves office to take a position with the state department of Safety and Homeland Security on April 14th, he'll be leaving a department vastly different from the one he was asked to lead more than six years ago.

From instituting Blue Crush, a groundbreaking method of deploying officers based on crime statistics, to launching the $3.5 million technology hub Real Time Crime Center, Godwin appears to have created a successful model for fighting crime in Memphis.

Today, Blue Crush has been lauded as part of the reason for a 24 percent drop in major violent crime over the past four years. Since Godwin was appointed director, more than 324,000 arrests have been made.

Godwin also managed to completely reorganize the department, which currently boasts 2,400 officers, through the controversial abolishment of the captain rank and the breakaway from consolidated city-county DUI and gang units.

Like any city leader with a few years under his belt, Godwin also has seen his share of bad press. He made national headlines over a lawsuit that sought to unveil an anonymous blogger who spoke out against him and got plenty of negative coverage for a handful of dirty cops who were outed during his tenure.

Even Godwin's decision to leave the department was shrouded in some controversy. After Godwin found himself defending the $377,000 pension payment he'd be receiving in addition to his retirement checks, he made the decision to leave his Memphis job for good. "I didn't want to be remembered as the guy who got something he shouldn't have gotten," said Godwin, who was asked to serve as deputy commissioner for the state department of Safety and Homeland Security almost immediately after his retirement announcement.

Memphis police officers monitor crime stats and cameras in the Real Time Crime Center.
  • Memphis police officers monitor crime stats and cameras in the Real Time Crime Center.

Though he's leaving a demonstratively better department than the one he inherited, Godwin seems to be as modest as he was on the day he instituted that new uniform policy.

"I know I'm leaving with the fact that I was who I am," Godwin said. "I have not changed from day one. I don't have an ego."

From Undercover to On the Cover

At age 10, Godwin's father was stabbed to death at the family's home near the corner of Thomas and Chelsea.

"My mom woke me up in the middle of the night and brought me in the kitchen. There were police officers everywhere," Godwin told Downtowner magazine. "She asked, 'Do you know your father died?' I remember looking around at the officers standing in my kitchen, and I remember I never felt more secure and safe. I told my mom then, 'When I grow up, I want to be a Memphis police officer.'"

After a stint in Vietnam with the Marines, he followed through on that pledge in 1973, when he joined the force as undercover narcotics officer Agent 704. Godwin's undercover work in Memphis' topless clubs led to numerous arrests, and he was eventually promoted to patrolman. He later served as a police training academy supervisor, a homicide investigator, a fraud and document investigator, and then as commander of the crime response/bomb unit.

"When they put me in crime scene, we had no equipment in the bomb unit," Godwin said. "I made my first bomb call [in 1992], and all I had to cut into the box was one of those little knives you put on your key ring."

Godwin quickly remedied that problem, outfitting the unit with new bomb suits, X-ray machines, and other equipment.

"Now we've built a blast pit, and we've got a storage facility full of explosives," Godwin said.

Eventually, Godwin was promoted to deputy chief, and it wasn't long before Herenton asked him to take on the directorship following the forced resignation of Director James Bolden. Bolden, the fifth director to serve under Herenton, was asked to step down in 2004 after the mayor chastised police officers for allegedly acting in an unprofessional manner during a traffic stop.

"I never wanted to be the director. That's the God's honest truth," said Godwin, who claims he'd already had plans to retire under the city's Deferred Retirement Option Plan (DROP) in 2004. "When I got named, all I wanted was to do a good job, serve the citizens, and make a difference. [Herenton] said he needed a crime fighter, and I said I can do that."

Crushing Crime

Surrounded by top brass from the MPD and District Attorney Amy Weirich in the 12th-floor conference room at 201 Poplar on April 1st, Godwin announced the results of his final big bust.

Operation Street Sweep XXXIV, a nine-month undercover investigation targeting illegal narcotics sales across the city, netted 106 arrests of drug dealers and prostitutes and resulted in the boarding-up of two homes at 698 Alabama and 1142 Margaret that were public nuisances due to drug activity.

Like so many major undercover operations during Godwin's tenure, the most recent sweep was made possible by the early implementation of Blue Crush, a method of data-driven policing in which statistics pinpoint crime hotspots and deploy police to the areas where they're most needed.

The program began in 2005, after Godwin called together a group of crime fighters — the U.S. attorney, the district attorney, the head of the Organized Crime Unit, MPD deputy chiefs, and University of Memphis criminologist Richard Janikowski — to discuss a pilot operation using crime data to target and prevent criminal activity.

"The director said what we're doing hasn't worked," said Janikowski, who was responsible for developing the Blue Crush model. "He had already been familiar with some of the work we had done mapping firearms crime under Project Safe Neighborhoods, so he asked why can't we do that with other types of crime? The answer was, yes, we can."

Using data on hotspots identified by the U of M's criminology department, the Blue Crush pilot program was launched August 4, 2005, netting 162 arrests and 369 traffic citations.

Other Blue Crush saturations, focusing on everything from robberies of Hispanics and Hurricane Katrina survivors in Memphis to car break-ins and gang activity, were also successful, and the policy was soon implemented department-wide.

"I don't think, without data-driven policing, that we'd be where we are today. Blue Crush puts police in the right place at the right time," Janikowski said.

Also in 2005, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission launched the Operation Safe Community Plan, an aggressive 15-strategy initiative aimed at making Memphis and Shelby County one of the safest communities of its size by 2011. The plan targets reducing truancy to strengthening state gun laws, but expanding data-driven policing is the first strategy listed in the plan. Though Memphis may not yet be the safest community of its size, violent crime has dropped dramatically since 2005.

"If you look at the reasons that we've had this significant reduction in serious crime in Memphis over the last five to six years, that data-driven deployment of officers has to be the number-one reason," said Tennessee Safety and Homeland Security commissioner Bill Gibbons, who recently left his position as Shelby County district attorney to work in Governor Bill Haslam's administration.

Since it started in Memphis, the Blue Crush model has been implemented in police departments across the globe. Godwin recently gave a presentation on hotspot policing in Israel, and two British police forces have launched programs based on Blue Crush.

Besides deployment of officers, crime data also lets police know where to install temporary and permanent video cameras to monitor crime. Those cameras feed directly into another of Godwin's biggest accomplishments: the Real Time Crime Center.

The Orwellian control room, located on the upper floor of a secret downtown location, features around 50 television screens, which are monitored by MPD officers 24/7.

The center, which also features technology that allows officers to search multiple databases on crime locations, suspects, or vehicles within minutes, was unveiled in 2008.

Big Brother or not, the cameras around the city have increased the department's visibility, and this is another factor influencing the drop in crime.

Godwin is also responsible for installing high-tech license-plate reading cameras atop some police cars. The cameras scan license plates for expired tags, sex offenders, felons, and outstanding warrants.

Although Godwin introduced the new technology-based policing model to the department, he credits the officers for making it work.

"You can have all the technology in the world, but if you don't have accountability and leadership, a good manager, a good staff, and good colonels, it all fails," Godwin said.

"They took ownership of this, and I think that's why you see the positive things you see today."

godwin3.jpg

Reshaping the MPD

Before Blue Crush was a household name in Memphis, one of Godwin's first major orders of business in 2004 was to trim the department's budget. After evaluating the structure of the department, Godwin determined that abolishing the rank of captain would save $1.4 million.

At the time, officers were eligible to become captains after 30 years of service. As expected, Godwin's decision to abolish that rank was unpopular among captains, who were given the choice of taking a demotion or retiring with a captain's pension. Officers believed the city's charter entitled them to the rank of captain, and years of litigation followed.

"As many friends as I lost [with that decision], my big issue with the captains was the money. In a year, you'd go from patrolman to captain, and most of them didn't have the managerial skills. All they wanted was the money," said Godwin, who calls the captain issue the toughest thing he's dealt with as director.

That decision was the first step in a major reorganization of the MPD. Piece by piece, Godwin evaluated units for efficiency, eliminating the ones he determined weren't working and adding new units as needed.

Although Godwin began his work with the MPD as an undercover agent, he didn't realize until being named director that the department's undercover team had become practically nonexistent over the years.

"I just thought I didn't know who the undercover officers were, but we really didn't have any," Godwin said. "So we started with one officer, and when we saw how successful that was, we started increasing it. That's when [then-District Attorney Bill Gibbons] came to me to talk about the public nuisance laws. I started having undercovers make [drug] buys, and, my goodness, look where we are today."

Utilizing the undercover team and the Blue Crush model, Godwin and Gibbons closed down topless clubs Platinum Plus and the Tunica Cabaret, gay nightclub Backstreet, and numerous other bars and private homes associated with drug sales and other illegal activity.

The Felony Assault Unit, which aggressively investigates aggravated assaults in the same manner that homicides, rapes, and robberies are investigated, was added. And Godwin formed the Hispanic Action Response Team to address crime against the Spanish-speaking community.

"We broke from the [consolidated city-county] Metro Gang Unit, and we broke from the Interstate Drug Interdiction Unit and the Shelby County Metro DUI Unit. We put it all under the umbrella of organized crime," Godwin said.

Today, most of the gang and drug issues are dealt with by the MPD's Organized Crime Unit rather than the combined forces of the MPD and the sheriff's office, a move that met criticism.

Whitehaven's Garden View Neighborhood Association president Jacque Jenkins, who lives in one of the MPD's highest-crime wards, said the decision to pull out of the gang unit was one of Godwin's worst decisions.

"At one time, Memphis and Shelby County had one of the best gang task-force units in the country. Under Godwin, that was lost," said Jenkins, who hopes new police director Toney Armstrong will bring back the partnership.

Godwin also returned management of the neighborhood COACT community policing units to the precinct level, which Jenkins says weakened the COACT in her area. She said the move resulted in a distrust of law enforcement by kids who had formed relationships with the officers working directly in their communities.

"Children in my neighborhood had established such a good relationship with the lieutenant at the Graceland COACT, they would call him anytime they saw something they knew shouldn't have been going on," Jenkins said. "When he was transferred, no one made an attempt to fill that void, and the kids closed up."

The Bad with the Good

In 2005, MPD officer Arthur Sease was arrested and later sentenced to 255 years in prison for his role in orchestrating a conspiracy ring in which he and several other MPD officers used their authority to rob drug dealers of cash, cocaine, and marijuana.

Sease's arrest was perhaps the highest-profile case of police corruption during Godwin's reign, but more than 50 others were rooted out over the years for crimes ranging from DUI and domestic violence to second-degree murder and rape. As recently as April 4th, MPD officer Mutima Winters was charged with abusing her 6-year-old daughter.

Critics have labeled the department corrupt, but Godwin has said nothing could be further from the truth.

"I don't think good cops go bad. I think bad people are hired as cops," Godwin told the Flyer in 2009.

"If you look at the number of officers we have, those [bad cops] represent less than one-half percent. That's a small number, and I've made a pledge to rid this department of bad officers."

The handful of dirty cops wasn't Godwin's only public relations nightmare. In 2008, free-speech advocates ridiculed the director's efforts to unmask an anonymous blogger/MPD officer known only as "Dirk Diggler," a moniker borrowed from a porn-actor character in the film Boogie Nights. Diggler roused Godwin's ire for launching a blog allowing uniformed patrol officers a place to voice anonymous discontent with the department's leadership.

The MPD Enforcer 2.0 blog criticized Godwin and other top brass for the firing of certain officers, the MPD's employment and promotions process, and other concerns.

Godwin made national headlines when he filed an interstate subpoena to discover the identity of Diggler. That lawsuit, which was eventually dropped, cost taxpayers $88,000.

The blog has been mostly silent since March 2009, but the still-anonymous Diggler reappeared after Godwin announced his retirement in February: "I, for one, am glad to see his sorry ass go and hope that A C [Wharton] does the right thing. We cannot have another DickTator run this department into the ground. I would come out of hiding and put in an application if they announce the opening!"

Godwin's relationship with members of the Memphis Police Association union has been rocky over the years.

"One of the most disappointing things to me is the Memphis Police Association. I had a goal to work as a team, and I wanted to get the officers better pension benefits," Godwin said. "If we're wrong about something, come tell us. I'll admit we're wrong and move on. This group came in with an agenda."

In March of last year, Godwin fired union president J.D. Sewell for allegedly interfering with the investigation of Sergeant Betty Carter, who was charged with animal cruelty after two of her dogs were euthanized due to malnourishment. Carter didn't show up for court, and an arrest warrant was issued. According to Godwin, Sewell contacted a judge to get Carter's warrant dismissed.

Sewell filed a lawsuit, claiming he was the victim of retaliation for exposing improper practices by the MPD administration. He eventually got his job back. After Godwin's retirement announcement, Sewell told the Flyer he thinks Godwin has done a good job overall despite his past conflict with the director.

"The only negative thing on Godwin is that he's been too vindictive, too retaliatory. If anyone can say that, it should be me," Sewell said. "Even with saying that, I would still give him a thumbs-up."

In Godwin's final touch of controversy as director, he faced public scrutiny after his $377,000 pension was made public following the retirement announcement.

In 2008, Godwin enrolled in the city's DROP plan. At the time, he was hoping Mayor Wharton would later rehire him as director, but he faced criticism over whether his enrollment in the plan three years ago precluded his rehiring when his commitment to retire became official in April. Rather than face a fight, the director announced that he'd changed his mind about coming back.

"There have been rumors associated with this situation of a possible elimination of the DROP plan so that I can be rehired. And I want to state this clearly: I would never, ever jeopardize the future benefits of the men and women in blue, ever," said Godwin in a prepared statement announcing he was leaving for good.

A few days after the announcement, Deputy Director Toney Armstrong, a 22-year veteran of the MPD known for his work as a supervisor over the Homicide Unit on A&E's The First 48, was named Godwin's successor.

Armstrong, who was unavailable for this story, has pledged to focus on community policing.

As for Godwin, he and his wife Nina will be moving to Nashville, where he'll begin his new job under Gibbons.

"He and I worked very closely as two members of a team in Memphis, and I think that made a tremendous difference," Gibbons said. "Now our job is going to be helping the entire state. Of course, that includes Memphis and Shelby County."

Godwin is leaving behind two sons at the MPD: Anthony Godwin currently serves on the Organized Crime Unit, and Lucian Godwin is working his way through the police academy.

Asked if he had any regrets, Godwin said he was disappointed that he didn't succeed in procuring raises for his officers in four years or getting a separate police headquarters building for the MPD.

"I wanted to get a building that bears our name. We're housed [in the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center], and nothing says we're here," Godwin said. "We're the 16th-largest department in America. How do we not have a headquarters?"

The MPD saw a high turnover of leadership under the Herenton administration as director after director was fired or asked to resign. As the longest-serving police director in recent years, Godwin said he feels lucky to be ending his 37-year stint at the MPD by choice.

"It's been a real high. What a ride! Thirty-seven years, 11 months, and 13 days," Godwin said.

"On my plaque on the Chiefs' Wall [at the police academy], I wish it could say, 'He Left On His Own.'"

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