Over the past year, we’ve seen our community carry the spirit of Dr. King forward in the fight for true justice for Tyre Nichols and so many others. We’ve worked to embody that same spirit in our fierce commitment to clearly defining real safety, which means valuing and investing in our people and communities. At the same time, crime is at the top of mind and center of conversation for most people right now.

With all this in mind, I thought this King Day would be a good opportunity to revisit the Policing Reimagined report from the Justice & Safety Alliance. The report grounds us in the history of policing (national and local) and provides evidence-based solutions with alternatives to policing.

Dr. King was often vocal in his calls to end police brutality across the country, including in a less frequently quoted part of his “I Have A Dream” speech: “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” He understood that a culture of violence within policing is a systemic issue, not just a problem of a few “bad apples.” While the life-saving police reforms passed in City Council and the DOJ’s pattern or practice investigation of MPD are real steps forward, we need to go further. We must also remain vigilant and continue to push forward when leaders like Mayor Jim Strickland embody the spirit of the “white moderate” that Dr. King warned us about. 

Violence in our community, whether from police or crime, is a reflection of our values, beliefs, and policies. The beliefs that allowed those police officers to devalue Tyre Nichols’ life so much, are the same as those that allow our governments to pass budgets that devalue our people and communities – refusing to make the investments we know are needed to achieve real safety for all. The solutions are available, but we must push past our accepted culture of the status quo (cultivated by a history of racism) to get to them. 

The current conversation of crime in Memphis & Shelby County is no different. We cannot continue to allow the status quo to dominate with reflexive demands for more police, prosecution, and punishment. We must focus on solutions that center the inherent value of all people. We can chart a course forward that has both accountability and a clearer moral arc towards the justice Dr. King preached. 
The solutions presented in the Policing Reimagined report are the opportunities to build the equitable, just, and safe community that we all want to call home, and we can’t wait to work with you to make them a reality.

We were able to accomplish a great deal in 2023, working in Memphis, Shelby County and at the state level. Increasingly, we have focused on building coalitions and partnerships to increase our impact and effectiveness. We can’t thank enough the wonderful organizations and people who we are privileged to work alongside in this fight for justice. We wanted to take a minute to reflect on these collective wins and share them with you for a dose of inspiration as we close out the year. 

Advancing Justice and Safety

  • The Justice & Safety Alliance (JSA) hosted a well-attended community healing event following the police killing of Tyre Nichols, bringing community members together to take a breath and connect in our shared determination to prevent future instances of police brutality.
  • When MPD’s “draft” presentation of their plan to potentially harass and violate the rights of young people downtown (Juvenile Crime Abatement Program) was leaked, Stand worked with JSA to lead the public outcry and ensure the public understood the implications of this proposed program and pushed against it. 
  • Following the lead of Official Black Lives Matter Memphis and Decarcerate Memphis, JSA helped support the tireless activism and advocacy that pushed the City Council to pass critical policing reforms. This support included hosting an online action–through our collective efforts we galvanized nearly 1000 Memphians to email City Council in support of the ordinances. 
  • During August’s Special Legislative Session, we worked with organizations statewide on youth justice issues, including the work to eliminate youth fines and fees. Together, we developed a bill tracker, sent out regular communications to keep the public informed, and recruited diverse local and statewide organizations to sign on to our open letter opposing a dangerous blended sentencing bill (HB 7073). 
  • We supported advocacy led by justice-impacted and adjacent youth with the Youth Justice Action Council (YJAC). They took their 2nd tour of the new county detention center, engaged in the city elections by releasing the YJAC City Level Demands and participating in candidate forums, partnered with Power Poll Memphis to create the “We’re Sick of It! – Changing the Narrative Around Youth Violence in Memphis” interactive event, and conducted research working alongside U of M Public Health Professor Dr. Jennifer Turchi. Check out their podcast: “That’s Not How We Do It Here,” wherever you get your podcasts!
  • After historic wins in 2022 with new District Attorney and Juvenile Court Judge, our efforts turned towards seeing those elections produce results for increasing justice and safety by supporting the new administrations of DA Steve Mulroy and Judge Tarik Sugarmon. We have worked closely with those offices, attending DA Mulroy’s Public Safety Summit and supporting several other efforts. 
  • We partnered with Innovate Memphis in receiving a grant to develop a justice data dashboard. We held sessions with community members to learn what data people were most interested in, how they would want to see the data, and what they might do in their communities with more accessible data.

Strengthening Democracy 

  • Our advocacy led to the most transparent redistricting process for the Memphis City Council in decades. Following up on the successful coalition advocacy in 2022 calling for a public redistricting committee in 2022, we continued to advocate in the redistricting process as several council members and the Council attorney continued to work against transparency and fair representation. We worked with partners to submit community-created redistricting maps, mobilized support, and pushed the council to have public review of districts that would shape the city for the next 10 years. 
  • After the all-time low turnouts in the city elections, we mobilized Memphians to urge City Council to return the power to the people in shaping future elections. Our advocacy and your emails to Council led to the passage of a critical ballot question that will ask voters whether to reinstate runoff elections for the Mayor’s race, a significant step towards making future elections easier to navigate.

Investing in People and Communities

  • Based on our efforts with the Moral Budget Coalition’s 2022 Community-Centered Budgeting Process and multi-year push for greater community involvement in the budgeting process, Shelby County Government developed its own interactive tool for the public to send input on the budget directly to the Mayor’s Office and Commission. This was a big win for public involvement, and we’re ready to mobilize to advocate for a Moral Budget in 2024 and beyond!

Electoral Successes and Advocacy: 

  • After his unjust expulsion from the Tennessee State House, our stellar endorsement committee swiftly reconvened to endorse Representative Justin J. Pearson in the special election, which he won decisively. 
  • Working closely with Rep. Pearson and his team, we launched an independent campaign in the Memphis Mayor’s race—our work and investments avoided worst-case scenarios and prevented Sheriff Floyd Bonner from becoming mayor. We look forward to working with Mayor-Elect Paul Young as he takes office in January!
  • With the People for Fairness and Justice, we celebrated victories in 8 out of 13 City Council districts, including three significant runoffs that led to the first majority female Memphis City Council! We’re excited to keep strengthening this coalition for future elections. 

Supporting our Students in their Education Success

  • We partnered with EdTrust to develop and advocate for state legislation that requires the TN Dept of Education to report on 9th grade on-track metrics and their use in other states. Ninth grade is a critical year in a student’s education–students who are on-track by the end of their freshman year are up to four times more likely to graduate than off-track peers. Center for High School Success Director Lori Oduyoye gave an excellent testimony in support of HB 1295, which passed into law and was one of the winners of EdTrust TN’s Ten for Tennessee award!
  • With Momentum Memphis, we hosted town halls to raise awareness of the Third Grade Retention law that was implemented this year and supported statewide efforts to push back on the law. 
  • We continued to work with early literacy efforts including engagement in the development of MSCS’s Community Partnership Plan, serving on the MSCS Strategic Partners for Literacy, and continued support for the Early Literacy Consortium to  strategize ways that the overall community can be involved and support literacy development across the city.  

Developing Leaders of the Future

  • Our 2023 cohort of fellows spent the year honing their skills and boosting their confidence as community organizers. They had opportunities to engage with our collaborative efforts with coalition partners, actively engage in the field through impactful deep-canvassing initiatives, and participate in City Council and School Board meetings around justice and safety issues. 
  • We capped the year off with The Memphis Power Summit, which was more than an event–it was a catalyst for inspiration and change, reminding us of how powerful we are when we come together.

These wins did not happen in a vacuum and aren’t just successes of Stand TN. Most of the work we do is in coalition and partnership with organizations and people across the city, county, state, and country, because we know that we cannot create lasting systemic change alone. The fight for a more just world where we all have what we need to thrive is ongoing, and in 2023, we were proud to work with and support Memphis organizers and advocates who put in countless hours of work to take steps forward. We owe so much to today’s organizers, and to those on whose shoulders we stand.

I can’t wait to see what we accomplish together in 2024!

When the governor announced the call for the extraordinary session on public safety, advocates and juvenile justice stakeholders were shocked to see only one item specifically related to guns, while 4 out of the 18 items listed were focused on juvenile courts, including expanding transfer to adult court, limiting expungements, and introducing a new blended sentencing scheme. When pressed on why, Republican leadership has deflected, saying that youth are responsible for a lot of crime. But their numbers simply don’t add up. 

Legislators claim over and over again that youth in Shelby County are more dangerous than ever, despite steady annual declines in youth arrests, and despite the fact that Shelby County’s rate of juvenile court referrals is lower than the state average. There is no data source that shows that youth are primarily responsible for Tennessee’s increase in gun violence–in fact, the data suggests that youth crime is unrelated. 

Over the past decade, crimes committed by youth in Tennessee have fallen by over 50%, for both serious and lesser offenses. Yet according to the Sycamore Institute, firearm related deaths in Tennessee have been steadily increasing for the past decade, and the Tennessee Department of Health’s 2023 Child Fatality Annual Report shows that firearms are the leading cause of death for children aged 0-17. This data shows us that youth are not the problem – widespread and unregulated access to guns is the problem.

The Sentencing Project, a national nonpartisan think tank, analyzed over a decade of Tennessee Bureau of Investigation data, and found that the youth arrest rate has fallen 23% more than the adult arrest rate since 2011. They concluded that the data suggest that the juvenile system is more effective in reducing offending and arrests than the adult criminal justice system. Proposals to move youth into the adult system are likely to increase offending.”

Youth crime is down, and the data suggests that the juvenile justice system is more effective at reducing crime than the adult criminal justice system. So why are our elected representatives holding closed-door meetings to push more young people into the adult system instead of answering our direct calls to take action on gun violence?

Source: Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth, via the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center

The most extraordinary parts of this special session are its lack of transparency and scapegoating of Black youth in Shelby County. Make no mistake, we absolutely need to make improvements to continue supporting youth and families impacted by the juvenile justice system, expand prevention services, and keep our communities safe. But the positive changes we want to see will not come from a session in which legislators are using our young people as talking points to mask their continued refusal to respond to calls for common sense gun reform. 
No matter what happens during this special session, let’s make sure the legislature knows that we want and need common sense gun legislation to keep our children and communities safe. You can show your support by signing the petition launched by youth organizers in our community from the MICAH Youth Council: bit.ly/EndGunViolenceTN. It’s time for our legislators to realize that youth are not the problem—they’re leading the way in creating the solutions.

Sunday’s rally to Combat Gun Violence and Empower Youth and Black Voters held in Memphis before the start of the special session was a powerful display of solidarity for area youth and key issues affecting their lives. Various community organizations came together to provide activities, resources, and information about critical topics like voting and public safety.

The event featured notable speakers like District Attorney Steve Cohen, State Representative G.A. Hardaway, District Representative Justin Pearson, and mayoral candidates Van Turner and Brandon Price. Rep. Pearson gave a passionate opening prayer that ignited spirits and set the tone for the important week ahead. Throughout the event, Rep. Pearson and other officials made time to speak directly with youth leaders in attendance.

Several speakers called for greater community accountability to stop gun violence, sharing lessons from their own past experiences to empathize with youth today. Others discussed how poverty, lack of resources, and neglect in many communities cause individuals to resort to violence out of desperation. Speakers emphasized the need for public officials and institutions to address these root causes. Other speakers called for recognizing the emotional toll of combating violence, and encouraged leaders to persist in doing this vital work while making time to rest and take care of themselves.

The rally included many engaging activities for young people. Game Changers provided chess games, Memphis Artists for Change performed socially conscious music, and youth poet Trekeria shared impactful works written during her experiences as a young person in the youth justice system. Attendees found relief from the heat with a food truck, water ice stand, and a bounce house. Voter registration and music from a DJ created an atmosphere of empowerment and community.

The Combating Gun Violence and Empowering Youth and Black Voters Rally brought people together to support Memphis youth, connect them with resources, and amplify their voices. The event offered hope for creating a more just and compassionate future through solidarity, civic engagement, and addressing core needs. United alongside youth, we will continue to push for a safe, just, and thriving future for our young people today, and generations to come!

Local officials’ role on the nonprofit board presents a conflict of interest in their public service duties

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Monday, April 3, the Justice & Safety Alliance (JSA) sent an open letter to the local elected (and some appointed) officials who sit on the nonprofit board of the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission (MSCC), urging them to step down and avoid conflicts of interest that could unduly influence their official service to the residents of Memphis and Shelby County. 

The MSCC often presents and lobbies its viewpoint to public officials and bodies as a unilateral body. These viewpoints have traditionally been led by the particular perspective of MSCC staff leadership, as might be expected from an “independent, non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.” By serving on the board, elected officials and justice-related appointees, whose offices would be greatly impacted by the MSCC’s recommendations, imply that they agree with and condone the Crime Commission’s views. This can limit the fair exchange of ideas as different viewpoints are expressed, which allows the MSCC an outsized position in the public discourse. The presence of decision-making officials on the nonprofit’s board directly contradicts the democratic principle that an elected official works for and represents ALL of the community they serve, instead of just one segment. 

“The Crime Commission positions itself as fully representative of the community with an implied view that it is a public/private entity, when fundamentally, it is a nonprofit that supports an agenda that does not represent the interests of our entire community. There has been an implication that the MSCC presents objective data, research, and recommendations, when in reality, the nonprofit has traditionally presented data, ‘research,’ and recommendations that support their ideological perspective, which clearly prioritizes increasing incarceration and policing.” said Cardell Orrin, a representative of JSA. 

The partner organizations of the JSA represent justice-impacted communities, young people, families, educators, faith leaders and practitioners, legal professionals, and workers. Together, we are formally asking the following elected and appointed officials to remove themselves from the MSCC’s Board of Directors: District Attorney Steve Mulroy, Juvenile Court Judge Tarik Sugarmon, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, County Mayor Lee Harris, County Commissioner Erika Sugarmon, City Mayor Jim Strickland, City Councilman Frank Colvett, Police Chief CJ Davis, and U.S. Attorney Kevin Ritz.

A copy of the JSA’s official letter to the elected officials currently on the MSCC board can be found at: https://justiceandsafetyalliance.org/open-letter-to-local-public-officials-on-crime-commission/.

Our hearts are with everyone who experienced The Covenant School shooting on Monday, March 27. Nothing will bring those children and educators back, but we can channel our grief and rage into action so gun violence stops being a “normal” part of school life.

Before we dive into actions, we encourage everyone to prioritize your mental health & remember, in the face of tragedy, you are never alone. If you or any loved ones need support, here are some resources to get you started:

As we discuss the “why” behind these tragedies and how we can prevent them in the future, we must state the obvious: gun violence would not exist without guns. TN’s irresponsibly lax gun laws are merely choices: the majority of our lawmakers are actively choosing to accept, allow, and enable gun violence with every vote they take to strip our gun laws and all the fear-mongering they push to sell more guns. In fact, Tennessee has some of the weakest gun laws in the country, and we’re now in a place where guns are the leading cause of death among Tennessee children and teens.

Despite the choices politicians make, Tennesseans across race, place, and background know our children’s worth. Our voices matter. Together, we can call on our current elected officials to enact meaningful change and elect future leaders who truly understand the value of our children. Join the call for common sense gun reform and connect with groups already engaged in the work: https://forwardtn.org/gun-safety/ 

Advocating for more resources that center students’ mental and emotional wellbeing are also equally as important when we talk about student safety. How students feel in school carries into how they feel in the world. If they don’t feel supported in the place that’s supposed to lay the groundwork for their future, we are setting them up to fail. But we still need to remind many lawmakers in our General Assembly that everyone—regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression and identity—deserves to see themselves represented in libraries and school curricula and feel a sense of belonging and safety.

While extremist lawmakers will try to use the shooter’s transgender identity as fuel for their hateful agenda, we know that transgender and gender non-conforming people are far more likely to be victims of gun violence than perpetrators. TN’s anti-trans, anti-drag, and school censorship laws will only add to the cycle of trauma, simply due to some lawmakers’ unfounded fear of identities they don’t understand. Take action to stop these bills from harming more students: bit.ly/edtrustaction

Regardless of the laws passed in Nashville, we know teachers and faculty are doing the best they can in supporting and teaching kindness to students. Providing students with the proper support and resources in schools AND changing gun laws is the only way to prevent these tragedies for good. 

And we echo our partners: Safety does not mean increasing police presence in Black, Brown, and low income communities. It means passing common sense gun laws that protect our children and families from mass shootings and all other types of gun violence. It means passing trauma-informed and inclusive policies that create community and school spaces where everyone–regardless of race, class, gender expression and identity, sexual orientation, and ability–feels a sense of belonging and care.

We will keep The New Covenant students, staff, and families in our hearts as we continue to call for meaningful change from our current and future elected officials, so that no child, family, or educator experiences school gun violence again.

Over the past two weeks, and in the wake of hearing from his parents at the January 23 press conference, we have been holding Tyre Nichols and his loved ones in our hearts. We mourn another young life taken by an unacceptable and preventable act of police violence, and we join the calls for more transparency from the Memphis Police Department. Even though the individual officers involved in Tyre’s arrest and killing are starting to be held accountable, the fact remains that systemic racism and lack of accountability for law enforcement run deep throughout the entire criminal legal system. These systemic problems require systemic solutions, bringing us back to the urgent need to reimagine policing entirely.

The case is now a federal civil rights investigation, and the whole country’s eyes are once again on Memphis. True justice means making sure these acts of police brutality never happen again, and we will continue to work in beloved community to create a city where we are all free from police violence, where we all have our basic needs met, and where we all have the chance to not only survive, but thrive.

According to the MSCS Handbook, possession of pepper spray is a suspendible offense, yet the adults in charge of protecting student safety are free to use this harmful chemical agent against students at their discretion with little to no accountability. This excessive use of force by school officers and/or school resource officers (SROs) to break up a fight between students at Melrose perpetuates a toxic culture of criminalizing and endangering youth in schools under the misguided assumption that adult-inflicted violence somehow makes young people safer.

In 2021, Momentum Memphis worked alongside students to call on the Board of Education to remove law enforcement acting as SROs from all public schools in our “Counselors Not Cops” campaign. To our great disappointment, after all that effort the Board voted unanimously to renew their contract with the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. This decision effectively puts our students in danger of unnecessary interaction with law enforcement, often without parental consent.

This school year, school officers and/or SROs have been using pepper spray against young people at an alarming frequency–almost once a week by the District’s own numbers. It should go without saying that chemical agents should never be used against our students. By doing so, the school officers, SROs, and other adults in charge are setting a dangerous example– effectively saying that using more violence is the best way to resolve conflict. When students respond to conflict with more violence, they face the risk of  suspension  or even expulsion; yet the adults responsible for ensuring student safety face little to no consequences when they respond with violence. 

In October 2022, Board Member Sheleah Harris called on the rest of the Board to pass a Code of Conduct for school security staff that would hold them to a higher standard. We stand with Board Member Harris, and we stress that the Code of Conduct would include requirements for trauma-informed de-escalation training and practices. 

Security staff have a responsibility to protect ALL students, including those who may be in conflict with each other. We will continue to advocate with and for our young people so that these violent incidents become things of the past, paving the way for prevention and restorative justice to come first and foremost. 

We are deeply disturbed and saddened by yesterday’s horrific shootings, on the heels of the kidnapping and murder of Eliza Fletcher, among so many other instances of violent crime in our community. Our hearts are with the people who were shot and killed yesterday, and with their families and loved ones. We grieve with the survivors, knowing how hard it will be to heal from this trauma of gun violence. We are also grateful for all of the emergency responders who risked their lives to keep the rest of us safe. 

All of us have the right to feel safe and secure, to know that we can walk around outside in our hometown without fear of violence. When we work together with the goal of authentic safety, accountability, and healing, we can create an environment where violence prevention is prioritized, so that this level of emergency response is no longer necessary. While well-intentioned, the default reaction of calling for more police and more punitive prison sentences has failed to make our communities safer. We cannot keep using the same responses to violent crime and expect different results. 

In order to reach true public safety, we need to create systems of care that ensure everyone has their basic needs met – access to housing, healthy food, education, transportation, healthcare, and mental healthcare. These solutions won’t happen overnight, so in the near term, we must invest in mental health support systems for youth and adults that will prevent horrific crimes like this from happening. These systems of care include early therapeutic interventions, crisis interventions that support healing, and diversion programs to keep people in their communities and accountable to healing. 

Our city and our communities are strong and resilient. We’re keeping all of Memphis in our hearts, and we hope everyone is able to take some time and breathe, hug someone you love, and rest today. Take care of yourselves, together we’ll rise up to create a brighter future for us all. 

In these final days of 2021, we want to thank so many of you – our members, leaders, volunteers, staff, partners, and broader community. We appreciate all the time and energy you generously gave to advocate in support of young people of Memphis and Shelby County and their families and communities.

In spite of the ongoing pandemic over the past year, we took some huge action steps in building coalitions towards educational equity, youth justice reform, breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, improving early literacy, increasing graduation success rates, and securing more equitable funding for education and other essential social services. We are excited to continue our partnership with you in 2022, and we would love to hear from you about how you want to engage with Stand for Children in the new year by filling out this survey! https://bit.ly/standTN21