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.

On April 14, the Justice & Safety Alliance (JSA) shared a presentation with journalists
outlining a newly formed Juvenile Crime Abatement Team within the Memphis Police
Department (MLK50 Article). The JSA firmly opposes the plan outlined in this presentation, which is
now “on pause” after articles on the team’s existence were published. Our coalition of
community-based advocates demands further commitment from MPD that it will stop
the use of racial profiling and targeted task forces — for juveniles and adults.

Created by department leadership, this new specialized unit will end up racially
profiling, surveilling, and criminalizing young people based on racist generalizations
and failed stop-and-frisk policies. It is an intentional policing policy change focused on
Downtown Memphis and represents an egregious, racist conception of public safety that
would violate the civil rights of young people and undermine trust between the
community and law enforcement.

The timing of this announcement is particularly alarming, coming just months after a
SCORPION task force killed Tyre Nichols and just days after the City Council finished
passing a slate of community-supported police reforms. Despite clear and consistent
community calls to end pretextual stops, eliminate the use of plain clothes officers, and
disband specialized units, this Juvenile Crime Abatement Team:

● Creates a new specialized unit to target children,
● Allows for pretextual pedestrian stops that criminalize normal teen behavior, and
● Employs plain clothes officers to carry out these stops.

If they choose to implement this plan despite all of the community pushback, MPD will
further erode trust between law enforcement and the people they are supposed to
protect and serve.

We cannot allow policies and practices like these to persist in our city. Young people in
Memphis deserve better. They deserve a city that invests in their education and safety,
not one that puts them on a path to prison and family separation. We must work
together to build a city where young people, regardless of their race or income, can
thrive and reach their full potential. We remain committed to working towards justice
and safety for all in Memphis.

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/.

We know all too well that racial disparities exist in the criminal legal system, especially those with lived experience. The next question we need to ask is “Why?” To ask these questions and start to get to the roots of these disparities, Stand for Children, MICAH, Official Black Lives Matter of Memphis, Just City, and Memphis for All are facilitating the Justice and Safety work of More For Memphis (MFM), a collaboration between 300+ multi-sector and neighborhood partners to establish a plan to improve quality of life in Memphis and Shelby County.

We’re leading with equity in the Justice & Safety Anchor Collaborative. To date, we have assembled an incredible work group of justice-impacted community members, youth, and organizational representatives to conduct a root cause analysis of the injustices we face, which will then inform tangible policy solutions. The work group has been meeting weekly and attending trainings on how to approach the potential solutions through an equity lens since September, and in November, they facilitated a well-attended and productive community event to include more voices in the process to get to the roots of injustice

This process is an important part of reshaping the narrative around public safety in our community, and the Justice & Safety workgroup is working with the Justice & Safety Alliance to ensure this work continues into the future. It’s time to move past surface-level “fixes” that blame the community for the problems that systems create. We believe that communities, particularly communities of color, deeply and intimately understand the problem and therefore hold the transformative solutions that will last. All of us are looking forward to the impactful conversations and the resulting action that we know will follow.

Stay tuned for more updates and ways to get involved in 2023!

The Justice & Safety Alliance (JSA) is a coalition of organizations focused on achieving lasting public safety by truly reimagining policing, supporting proactive crime prevention, and increasing investment in safe, strong, and healthy communities. Over the past year, we led and supported some important progress in Shelby County, including releasing the Policing Reimagined report, running the J22 Campaign to increase voter turnout in the justice races, and supporting partner organizations in getting major bail reforms passed. 

Policing Reimagined

With the focus on the role of policing in our community, we aimed to set out a clear perspective by commissioning independent expert Dr. Duane Loynes (Assistant Professor of Urban Studies and Africana Studies) to author a report called Policing Reimagined to provide history, context, and recommendations around the issues of policing and crime. After the report’s release, the JSA hosted a follow-up town hall with the authors to discuss the report as it pertains to policy and investment solutions in Memphis. 

Dr. Loynes’ work shows us that safe communities are not those with the most police, but those in which people have equitable access to the things they need. Read more of the summary and implications for Memphis in our op-ed in the Commercial Appeal.

Justice-22 (J22) Campaign

During the Shelby County general election over the summer, the JSA ran the non-partisan Justice-22 (J22) campaign to increase voter turnout, specifically encouraging voters to vote all the way down the ballot in the races related to the criminal legal system. The August ballot was especially long because it included several judge positions as well as the State and Federal primary offices, so the risk of voter dropoff was high. Our goal was to turn people out to vote in the District Attorney and Juvenile Court Judge races, and we focused our efforts on Whitehaven, Westwood, and South Memphis neighborhoods. Through door-to-door and crowd canvassing, we educated voters about the role those offices play in youth and adults’ daily lives. 

Even though voter turnout continued to trend low, we followed the August election with ongoing Voter Engagement meetings to strategize for the future. We’re looking forward to developing some new deep canvassing programs in 2023 and continuing to encourage people to get civically engaged. 

Major Bail Reforms for Shelby County 

In late July, the Shelby County Commission passed the following reforms to our bail system that would:

  • Create a new bail hearing courtroom
  • Require individualized bail hearings with counsel no later than three days after arrest
  • Require examination of a person’s financial circumstances prior to any bail decision, and
  • Turn to money bail only as a last resort.  

We worked with Just City, ACLU-TN, Official Black Lives Matter Memphis, and the Wharton Law Firm for over a year to advocate for these reforms through a joint letter to and negotiations with Shelby County Government and Judicial officials. After a year of calling on them to stop the bail practices that violate the constitutional rights of people arrested in Shelby County, we now have momentum to create one of the fairest bail systems in the country. These changes are expected to be fully implemented by February of 2023, and we’re committed to supporting the new justice administration’s reform efforts however we can.