Newspaper: Memphis struggles with range of crimes

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A newspaper examination of a decade of police data has found that while murder and other violent crimes grab the headlines, Memphis is struggling daily with drug addiction, social dysfunction and an underground economy sustained by crime.

An extensive report in The Commercial Appeal on Sunday shows that even a below-average crime week in Memphis, Tennessee’s biggest and most violent city, still means hundreds of burglaries, assaults, arrests for drugs and prostitution, broken car windows, stolen vehicles, and sexual assaults.

“I live in fear that I’m going to get robbed,” said Justin Schweiger, a witness to a robbery at a Family Dollar Store in August in which one of two men with T-shirts around their faces loaded a sawed-off shotgun and pointed it at the cashier. “I never felt like that in New York.”

The newspaper reported that between July 2000 and May 2009, the Memphis Police Department logged 1,062,076 criminal incidents.

That averages out every day to 47 simple assaults; 42 burglaries; 20 car thefts; and more than 30 acts of vandalism.

One-third of those arrested account for two-thirds of all arrests; 37,326 individuals accounted for 131,632 arrests during the period examined by the newspaper.

There were nearly 16,000 burglaries reported in 2008. Criminologists say burglaries are being driven by greater access and opportunity to more valuable (and more portable) household goods.

In many ways, the technological advances that have made possible valuable portable items such as MP3 players, cell phones and GPS units create more opportunities for criminals. The same holds true for more expensive household items such as flat-screen TVs.

But technology is benefiting the police too.

MPD is rolling out video cameras called license-plate readers that rapidly check a license-plate number against databases that can reveal whether the car might be stolen, driven by someone wanted by police, or someone with a revoked license or without insurance. They intend to have the cameras on more than 70 squad cars by the end of the year, and want to install others at strategic points throughout the city.

Police work now requires cops to become number crunchers, sifting through a mountain of computerized crime data looking for clues.

It’s the basis of MPD’s well-advertised “Blue Crush” initiative. On Aug. 29, Computer analysis had concentrated officers, on overtime, around the University of Memphis campus.

With a new semester about to begin, they knew thieves would be looking for a “target-rich environment” of college students leaving valuables in their cars.

Assault is the most-reported crime to MPD, and, many assaults involve what police label as “known assailants.” A huge percentage of the assaults are considered domestic violence.

Every year since 2004 there have been more than 18,000 simple assaults reported and, since 2005, the number of aggravated assaults has been near 6,000 each year. That’s more than 60 reported incidents of assault per day, or 19 percent of all reported incidents.

The reports streaming from MPD computers testify to the role guns — from assault weapons to Saturday night specials — play in Memphis crime.

More than 9,200 felony weapons incidents were recorded, from July 2000 through May of this year, and another 39,739 robberies of individuals, many with handguns. There were 1,400 killings during the period.

The Associated Pres