Note: This story was a collaboration between The Marshall Project, The Memphis Commercial Appeal and USA TODAY.
MEMPHIS — Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland took office in 2016 vowing to fight the city’s high violent crime rate by beefing up a dwindling police force. His most novel idea: use an advisory body, the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission, to funnel anonymous private donations from the city’s elite to reward cops who remain on the force.
His wish list, dubbed the “Blue Sky Strategy” and outlined in emails obtained by The Marshall Project, was ambitious: $48.2 million, including $12.7 million to subsidize housing and private school tuition for police families and $8 million for take-home cars.
So far the commission has channeled $6.1 million into the city budget, most of it for police retention bonuses. FedEx, International Paper and about a dozen other private entities are now subsidizing public safety in a big American city.
The commission has refused to disclose the amount of their individual contributions. “I don’t know how much the different businesses gave,” Strickland said. “I’m thankful they gave money, and if they didn’t want to say, individually, how much it was, then I am fine with that.”
Memphis is unusual in taking money from the private sector to pay cops, but it reflects a popular trope that blames shrinking police forces for violence. Jeff Sessions, during his short tenure as attorney general, played that theme before police audiences, and it has become routine for national police leaders to complain that the politics of Black Lives Matter and viral videos of police killing civilians, along with low pay, have made it harder to recruit and retain qualified officers.
Data shows that the raw numbers of police have declined over the past five years, and the rate of police officers per 1,000 residents has been dropping for two decades. At the same time, the violent crime rate has also dropped.
After at least 16 years of growing police agencies, the nation lost more than 23,000 officers from 2013 to 2016, according to a U.S. Justice Department survey, bringing the total down to about 700,000. Two-thirds of 397 law enforcement agencies reported in a December survey that they have seen a decrease in applicants compared to five years ago.
But according to several policing experts, cities are too focused on raw numbers, hiring consultant after consultant in a desperate quest to increase their headcount. A cottage industry of specialists caters to jurisdictions hunting for an optimal number of cops.
“Most police departments have issues, not with the number of officers, it’s with how they are deployed and scheduled,” said Alexander Weiss, a police staffing consultant whose clients have included police departments in Chicago, Albuquerque and New Orleans. “It’s more important what the officers do, versus how many of them there are.”
Responding to public panic over urban violence during the 1990s, President Bill Clinton signed off on millions of dollars in federal funds to hire thousands of local cops across the country. In 1997, two years after the money started to trickle out of Washington, the nation had 242 police officers for every 100,000 residents. By 2016, that number had dropped to 217 as law enforcement agencies shed jobs in the aftermath of a national recession while the nation’s population grew.
The national violent crime rate, over those 19 years, dropped by 37 percent. According to FBI data, in 1997 the national violent crime rate was 611.0 per 100,000 inhabitants. In 2016 the violent crime rate was 386.3 out of 100,000 inhabitants.
Fears of rising crime and shrinking officer counts have emerged as common concerns in cities across the nation from Dallas to Detroit to Memphis and elsewhere. Adding more cops to a violent city seems like an obvious fix, but there is conflicting research on the question of whether more cops drive down crime rates.
James McCabe, a retired New York Police Department official who travels the country as a police staffing consultant, says there is little clear connection between staffing numbers and crime. “New York City made the conscious decision to reduce the number of cops,” he noted in an interview. “And crime continued to go down. It’s not what you have, it’s what you are doing with them.”
The NYPD is one of a few departments that routinely recalculate how many officers they need to staff a 24-hour cycle. Called the Patrol Allocation Plan, the statistical model studies 911 calls and calculates such variables as how the time of day and type of crime affect an officer’s response time.
NYPD’s model is similar to what McCabe, and consultants like him, preach as the gold-standard in police staffing strategies. These “workload allocation models” are time-consuming and require statistical skills that most police departments lack. Instead, cities sign pricey contracts with Weiss, McCabe and their competitors to perform data-driven analyses of how officers can best use their time.
But the suggested reforms don’t always stick, because they entail a lot of bureaucracy and require wholesale support from City Hall and local police unions. The recommendations typically involve assigning longer work shifts, moving officers out of jobs that don’t require guns—duties such as crime scene investigations and administration—and hiring more civilians.
“It’s helping communities figure out how they can get the most out of their police department,” said Jeremy M. Wilson, a Michigan State University criminal justice professor and police staffing expert.
Wilson discourages police departments from comparing staffing levels to cities of similar size, and instead suggests basing police deployment primarily on the numbers of 911 calls and allowing time for cops to get out of patrol cars to talk to people. “It’s important for each community to understand what the community wants and can afford,” Wilson said. “Some communities want a community-oriented style, some want a law-and-order style, or service model. That has implications for deployment, costs, number of officers.”
Memphis has a murder rate worse than Chicago’s and a police force that has shrunk by nearly a fifth since 2011, to a head count of 2,020. The city is on its fourth round of outside police staffing consultants in eight years.
The most significant change, prompted by an outside expert, was made on previous mayor A.C. Wharton’s watch. In 2013, the department redrew its precinct maps in response to a 2012 analysis from a Washington D.C think tank, the Police Executive Research Forum.
PERF’s analysis, obtained by The Marshall Project, pointed out that the downtown tourist district had up to seven times as many cops on patrol per square mile as the city’s more violent areas. Officers in high-crime North Memphis spent half their work day chasing 911 calls, leaving less time to learn about the neighborhoods they protect. Their counterparts assigned to the tourist zones spent only a fifth of their time answering the police radio.
The Memphis Police Department carved out new precinct boundaries, but rejected other advice. For example, the consultants found that officers were spending a lot of time chasing reports about burglar alarms and vicious dogs. City officials debated and rejected the idea of freeing up cops by outsourcing low priority complaints to other city agencies, or to private security firms.
“That was going to be a pretty steep hill for us to get over with the citizens, to say we aren’t providing that service anymore,” said former Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong. “It is hard to stop doing something that you have traditionally done.”
Consultants say that in police departments across the country they encounter similar resistance to change.
Consultant Alexander Weiss analyzed police staffing problems in Albuquerque and New Orleans, and learned both cities had too few officers working during the busiest periods in the week. In New Orleans, Weiss found that, as in Memphis, officers were spending too much time responding to burglar alarms and to minor traffic accidents. “When they say ‘we are short-handed’, ‘we don’t have enough people,’ what they are really describing is a gap in their ability to staff according to their plan,” Weiss said.
PERF also faulted Memphis for repeatedly trying to hire cops who don’t meet state standards. Law enforcement agencies in Tennessee need a waiver from the Tennessee Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission to employ an officer who has felony convictions or a record of various misdemeanors. The Memphis Police Department led the state during the last two years in waiver requests. A Marshall Project review of state records found that six of the 48 waiver requests came from Memphis police for non-violent crimes ranging from open container violations to reckless driving. Nashville, with 500 fewer cops, had requested none.
PERF and a successor consulting firm, PFM Group, suggested that Memphis police hire more civilians to free up officers in non life-threatening assignments.
But reforms ground to a halt because of continuing fallout from both the 2008 recession and a round of 2011 pay and benefit cuts for city employees, including police officers.
Officer attrition jumped by two-thirds, according to Memphis Police Department records, and the police union put up billboards warning passersby that the city “does NOT support PUBLIC SAFETY.” The salaries were eventually fully restored, but not the benefits.
Armstrong says police recruiters from as far away as Texas and Florida were coming to Memphis to lure away his demoralized cops. “Until someone takes a look at the benefit packages, this is going to be a continual problem,” Armstrong said.
With thinning ranks, overtime is a necessity to keep the department afloat. Taxpayers spent $27 million in 2017 on officer overtime, nearly double the amount two years earlier. Cops complain that they are pressured to work double shifts, while residents say their local patrolmen no longer stop to share a friendly hello.
“Officers burn out in this city,” said Michael Williams, the president of the Memphis Police Association. “You have the police who are hesitant about doing their job because of the environment which has been created.”
Memphis residents have had no choice but to adapt. The Downtown Memphis Commission, a local development organization, recently organized a private security force that patrols a 6-mile swath of downtown and its outskirts, on foot, bike or Segway. The Blue Suede Brigade has 34 state-licensed officers, equipped with handcuffs, batons, pepper spray—but not guns. City Hall spokeswoman Ursula Madden described the brigade as “an added layer of support.”
Longtime furniture shop owner Bartley Garey in North Memphis, like most residents in the city, has no access to private security patrols. After noticing a reduced police presence a few years ago, Garey started to close his Hollywood Furniture & Hardware store by dusk. “I feel if I call 911—and I am being perfectly honest—I would be put on hold,” Garey said.
Strickland, then a city councilman, campaigned in 2015 as the “tough on crime” mayoral candidate, and became the first white mayor of this majority-black city in 24 years. He vowed one of his priorities would be “retaining and recruiting quality police officers.” Strickland hired his own outside brain-trust, starting with former New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly, known for his aggressive use of “stop and frisk” and for getting New York’s crime to historic lows.
On Strickland’s watch, the department has added about 100 civilians. The city also agreed to reinstate a program that trains recent high-school graduates to process minor traffic accidents.
Kelly was vice chairman of a security firm called K2 Intelligence. Strickland side-stepped the City Council and asked the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission to pay for K2’s six-figure contract.
Kelly’s June 2017 report on “crime reduction strategies” criticized Memphis police for failing to do the basics: Shooting trends were not mapped and analyzed; cops weren’t being deployed to areas with upticks in violence, known as “hot spots;” weekly crime stats were not being shared with the public on the department’s website.
Kelly recommended that the city hire another round of consultants to figure out how many cops Memphis needs by calculating trends in officer workloads. The city of Memphis contracted with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, or IACP, to do the assessment. IACP, the nation’s largest police chief organization, is also looking into how Memphis runs its police academy. Although IACP’s contract says it would provide progress reports on its findings, City Hall said the updates don’t exist.
In response to Kelly’s suggestions on how to get crime down, authorities added more personnel to a gang unit that is staffed by local and federal officers, and the police department made its weekly crime meetings, said the City Hall spokeswoman, “more in-depth.”
Violent crime, as of the end of November, is up 2.4 percent compared to the same period in 2016. An August hiring and recruiting report from the Memphis Police Department says that 22 cops who had signed up for the privately financed bonuses left their jobs anyway. The report describes Strickland’s new hiring efforts as “struggling.”
Meanwhile, Strickland is facing re-election this year. The centerpiece of his campaign? The need for more cops to carry on the fight against violent crime.
Additional reporting by Andrew R. Calderon and Daniel Connolly