Marketing Fear 

The Memphis Police Association is right to want its members’ benefits restored; it is wrong to use scare tactics.

click to enlarge GREG CRAVENS
  • Greg Cravens

Just about every group in America has a message. Some of those messages are uplifting, some are calls to action, and some are really trying hard to be both but just fail miserably. That's called bad marketing.

Then there are those occasional instances where the message is so onerous that you have to wonder why someone would ever think this is a good idea. Such is the most recent example by the Memphis Police Association.

The MPA recently put up a billboard on Poplar highlighting Memphis' high murder rate last year and implying that the number has something to do with fewer cops being on the beat. That's foolishness, and everyone who knows anything about anything knows it. 

This is just another in a string of messages from the MPA concerning the benefit cuts that took place several years back. The group has been trying to pressure the mayor's office and the Memphis City Council to reinstate those cuts, using the most incendiary tactics they can find — to little effect.

This isn't a way to make friends and influence people; it's a temper tantrum.

The MPA has every right to be upset about the benefit cuts. In fact, I share their anger. But they make it hard to be on their side when they put out messages like this.

It's a tactic the MPA has used time and time again, to little effect. The MPA and its president, Mike Williams, appear to believe provoking fear is the way to get what they want. For years, they've been trying to stoke fear for political effect, to no avail.

I support restoring the benefit cuts. I even support a tax increase to fund them. But I find myself hoping the city council and mayor's office won't reward this kind of behavior. I don't think they should punish it either.

I do think they need to send a clear message that, until they get honest, good-faith brokering from the MPA, this kind of activity will actually hurt any effort to restore the cuts.

What's most annoying about this messaging effort by the MPA is that it is intellectually dishonest. Their message implies that the benefit cuts have led to fewer cops on the beat, which explains the rise in violent crime. The first part of that argument has some truth to it. Benefit cuts have led to some officers leaving and have presented recruitment challenges. But linking that to the crime rate is misleading.

While the murder rate has gone up and down over the past several years, the reality is that it has stayed in a general range, no matter how many cops were on the beat. The same thing can be said for all violent crime in the city. 

Laying last year's homicide rate in the lap of the city council, the Mayor, and the current MPD administration is like blaming the number of babies born in a year on OB/GYNs. They didn't get the people pregnant, they just delivered the babies.

Ultimately, this kind of message does nothing but force people, including politicians, deeper into their corners. I agree that Memphis cops deserve to have their benefits restored. I agree that part of that effort may require an adversarial posture from the MPA. But this is not the way to do it.

The MPA has a right to stand up for its members, but it should do that while being honest about what drives the problems in our city.

There are plenty of cities all over the nation that have fewer cops and a lower crime rate. Why is that? Because these cities are often taking a more proactive approach to the systemic problems that lead to higher crime rates. Things like education, access to health care, good public transportation, and job placement services have a greater impact on violent crime than the number of cops on the beat.

If the MPA wants their members to get their benefits back, they should stop thinking only about what they want and start thinking about what the city needs. By advocating for those things, they could get their benefits restored, though most likely with a smaller force.

I doubt the MPA will do that. It appears they'd rather stare at the trees and wonder where the forest is.

Steve Ross is proprietor of vibincblog, where a version of this essay first appeared.

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