How Memphis plans to increase community policing
by: Jessica Gertler
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The chief calls community policing a top priority. The mayor wants to see it happen. Citizens agree it’s a must.
This summer the Memphis Police Department held a series of events to build bridges and trust in the community, especially with children. Those who attended said it was needed.
“I was raised in Foote Homes, so I understand what community policing is. We knew those officers. If we did something, we were okay with them correcting us. It wasn’t anything different. We need to bring that back,” atendee Sunshine Washinton said.
Memphis Police Chief CJ Davis said community policing is a top priority.
“It has to be baked into our police department. It has to be part of our performance metrics and evaluations,” Davis said.
MPD launched its first community policing initiatives in the ’90s and revamped them in 2011 into a model still used today. It’s called the Community Outreach Program.
The unit’s goal is to “disperse officers” in “high-crime areas” to “identify and combat root causes of violent and juvenile crime,” “cultivate and establish collaborative partnerships,” and work with juveniles through “educational and crime prevention programs.”
That includes programs like the Citizens Police Academy, Shop with a Cop and youth boxing. They hold school supply and food drives, work in community centers and host summer camps.
WREG Investigators found out in 2018, there were 34 commissioned officers assigned to the unit.
In 2019, 32 officers and eight police service technicians. In 2020, 30 commissioned officers and one police service techinican.
As of November 5, there were only 23 officers.
“Community policing is not what it was previously and that is what we want to restore,” Councilmember Jamita Swearengen said.
She was one of several councilmembers who told MPD in a January meeting, they wanted more people dedicated to community policing.
MPD said it didn’t have the staff to make it happen, a statement Mayor Jim Strickland echoed in an email we obtained.
He sent it to council members on January 4. He wrote in part, “staffing is even more severely impacted by quarantines and isolations” and “when the pandemic is over, under current staffing levels, MPD may be able to staff two CO-ACT units of ten officers and one supervisor.”
Strickland’s team told us his position remains the same. Although he’d love to make the council’s request happen, MPD is still short staffed. Right now, there are a little less than 2,000 officers.
We reached out to council members who were vocal at the start of the year, but never heard back.
“And I think that’s what we need to have,” said Shelby County Commissioner Van Turner.
Turner is on Strickland’s Reimagining Policing Advisory Council. This summer, they recommended Davis improve community policing. Turner said there are ways to work around a staffing shortage.
“Maybe we set up a situation where there is a virtual room. Everything is virtual now, right? Maybe there’s an opportunity to speak with an officer at least virtually twice a week in that community,” he said.
At a recent crime forum, Davis said she plans to get creative.
“We plan on bringing back our reserve officers who are actually retired but still have some energy in them and still want to provide service to the community,” she said. “So they can do light lifting. The proactive presence. Walking in certain neighborhoods.”
Davis didn’t give a timeline, but we do know she’s working on her three- to five-year strategic plan.