Recently in Crime Category

The Huffington Post is running a series of blog posts focusing on the success of the Project SAFEWAYS initiative in cleaning up the once notoriously crime-ridden Autumn Ridge apartment complex in Hickory Hill in Memphis. Today's first part was written by Melody Barnes, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, along with consultants Willa Seldon and Jennifer Mrowka:

There, 95 percent of the people stayed put and signed a lease agreement as part of a community-wide change effort and have seen an 80 percent overall decline in crime, along with the emergence of a true and growing community.

The people most responsible for crime moved. In place of gangs, after-school programs are now available to children. Mothers helped form a Girl Scout troop. And the complex, once 30 percent vacant and teetering on foreclosure, has attracted hundreds of engaged new residents. Meanwhile, throughout Shelby County, where Autumn Ridge is located, a related effort has reduced robbery by 42 percent since 2006 and burglary by nearly 22 percent, also making Autumn Ridge safer.

The story of Autumn Ridge is a classic example of a "community collaborative" -- a coordinated effort among many stakeholders to tackle big, complex social issues. These collaboratives aim for significant change; engage residents as well as business, community and political leaders; use data to improve over time; and are committed long-term.

The essay goes on to mention the Memphis Police Department's data-driven policing strategies as well as the contributions of a host of other parties, some public, some private, but all with a stake in creating safe communities in Memphis.

Dallas Observer blogger Jim Schutze points out a scholarly rebuttal of a 2008 magazine piece that Memphians and particularly readers of my blog might remember: Hanna Rosin's "American Murder Mystery" for The Atlantic Monthly.

In that piece writer Hanna Rosin cited what she said were statistical clusters in Memphis in the first decade of this century to argue that crime was spiking wherever recipients of public housing subsidies settled after being pushed out of the old public housing projects. I remember reading it when it was new and finding it pretty disturbing.

But you know 2008 was a long time ago. If you're going to reach that far back for an argument to use today, you need to keep Googling. If an argument is that old, it's important to see what has happened to it since it was born.

In fact, what you find -- easily available all over the net today -- is solid evidence from serious scholars to show that Rosin's article was bull---- magazine journalism.

Writing at the National Housing Institute journal Shelterforce, urban policy scholars Peter Dreier and Xavier de Souza Briggs use slightly more elegant language, but manage to make a pretty devastating case against Rosin's piece. Namely, that the Hope VI and "Section 8" programs that Rosin cites involve only a couple to a few thousand households in a city of 650,000 people, and that there is no evidence given that families and individuals who were involved with those programs committed any of the crimes in question.

Some excerpts:

Rosin leads her story with the observations of one Memphis police officer, Lt. Doug Barnes, who sets the tone for the article. He reports that certain neighborhoods--which Rosin calls "suburban" but are actually within the Memphis city limits--used to be quite peaceful until the displaced families, gang members and violence moved in. This is asserted despite a long history from the early 1990s of high levels of crime in Memphis. It had high levels of crime long before the current spike.

She then reports Barnes' view of working in this largely African-American area. Barnes tells Rosin that "my job right now is to protect the people from all the animals." The "animals," we easily infer, are the drug dealers and other criminals, who the article confounds with former residents of public housing. Without providing any proof that the former residents of Memphis' public housing projects are responsible for the rise in crimes, the article uses this racist code language to stigmatize both the tenants and the programs. It is not guilt by association but by mere proximity.

One more:

Where do the families with Section 8 vouchers live? For cost and other reasons, a small share live outside the Memphis city limits. Rosin's notion that Section 8 families were bringing a crime wave to once-bucolic suburban neighborhoods is simply baseless.

There is some evidence that most Memphis families with Section 8 vouchers, including those displaced from public housing, moved to areas that were already on the decline, with rising crime rates, caused by private disinvestment and the exodus of middle income families to Memphis' suburbs. Comments by a Memphis resident, posted after Rosin's article appeared, challenge her notion that these areas were peaceful prior to the alleged influx of Section 8 families. "I do have to take exception to the notion that North Memphis or Frayser were little slices of heaven as late as 2000. It may be worse now, but it was pretty rough in those areas before."

The bottom line here is that journalists, even accomplished ones like Hanna Rosin, are notoriously bad with numbers and scientific data. 

She indicts a program, without any hint of direct or clear evidence, using the simple version of an ongoing mapping project by two University of Memphis researchers. Basic statistics textbooks tell us: correlation is not causality.

Those researchers, Richard Janikowski and Phyllis Betts, knew that their findings were explosive, as they said in a Commercial Appeal profile that came out soon after the Atlantic piece:

"You have to understand that this did not make us happy," said Betts. "On the other hand, if we're wrong, there's something else we have to figure out."

Michael Stern, founding music director of the Germantown-based IRIS Orchestra, was among victims of an unscrupulous accountant who was sentenced Tuesday to 2 1/2 to 7 1/2 years in prison for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from clients. From today's Associated Press story:

(Joseph) Cilibrasi acknowledged in his guilty plea that he stole $75,000 from Stern by pocketing checks he told Stern to write to cover some federal and Missouri state taxes. Stern was hit with tax penalties because the money never got to authorities, Cilibrasi said.

... Stern said in a letter to the court that he'd endured years of tax trouble because of Cilibrasi, whom he'd trusted as a friend but now considers "a con man through and through and a born liar."


Perhaps the hardest-hit Cilibrasi client was Tamara Tunie, the actress who plays the medical examiner on "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit." Tunie told the court that Cilibrasi, who admitted to stealing more than $1.4 million from the actress, is a "menace to society."

Best-selling novelist John Grisham is the guest tonight on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight," where he sounds off on the West Memphis 3 case, which played out almost like one of his huge-selling legal thrillers like "The Firm" or "A Time to Kill."

"If you look at what happened to those three defendants, it was mishandled from the very beginning," says Grisham. "They rely on bogus confessions. They rely on jailhouse snitches."

Grisham was living in the Memphis area when three young Cub Scouts were brutally murdered in 1993 in the town of West Memphis, Arkansas. Three teenage boys, who became known as the West Memphis 3, were convicted of the murders despite the lack of physical evidence. "There was this very sensational trial and the community wanted justice," says Grisham. "They had some bad confessions to work on and these three guys get convicted, and they spend 18 years in prison." The West Memphis 3 defendants were released in August.

The show airs at 8 p.m. CT on CNN.
A Connecticut appeals court has upheld the 2009 conviction of casino cheat and former Memphian Richard Taylor, who is serving a 10-year sentence for a 2007 scam in which casino employees placed illegal bets on his behalf. To jog your memory:

Authorities say Taylor and his group were responsible for nearly $70,000 in losses at Connecticut's Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

Taylor dubbed himself "Mr. Casino," and was described in court records as a professional gambler who made his living through high-stakes gambling nationwide.

This blog covered the trial, conviction and subsequent appeal of "Mr. Casino" here, here and here

Shelby Count officials in Fresno to study anti-gang program

 
A delegation from Shelby County's anti-gang unit is visiting Fresno, Calif., this week to study that city's nationally recognized Multi-Agency Gang Enforcement Consortium or MAGEC, the Fresno Bee reported this week:

Since its inception in 1997, MAGEC has significantly helped increase the conviction rate for gang-related crimes and has made neighborhoods safer, Egan said.

"That's the model that we want to follow," said Ray Lepone, chief prosecutor for the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office.

Shelby County officials are especially interested in finding out more about the multi-agency approach, gang injunctions and gang crime prevention, they said.

How copper theft in Memphis stings investors; get ready for more

 
Copper Investing News has an interesting piece linking recession-era theft with fluctuations in the commodities markets. Specifically, the metal's recent price plunge has been made worse by thieves flooding the market with fenced booty. Things are just that desperate out there:

Copper theft has risen across continents as robbers seek to liquidate assets in a hurry. In the US city of Memphis, Tennessee, for instance, the occurrence of scrap-metal theft via air conditioning units skyrocketed some 515 percent this year in comparison with 2005 levels, according to The New York Times. Market participants are responding with heightened awareness and supporting ramped-up legislation that could turn the tables on criminals.

(Here's a link to that New York Times piece, which tracks the trend of thieves nicking copper components from air-conditioning units in the very dead of summer. And radio towers, live electrical lines, Alzheimer's facilities, etc.)

The good news in the future for the shrewd thief or junk collector? Copper appears to be getting close to its price floor. Steal low, and sell high:

Perhaps if  copper thieves had the fortitude to follow China's example and wait for the price of the raw material to bottom, they too could legally participate in an eventual comeback. Whether scrap metal regulators are ready or not, market signs appear to be pointing toward recovery. "Regarding the direction of copper prices, there were many discussions during LME week which led to a slightly more positive picture as the industry only slowly felt the impact of the financial markets," said Triland Metals' Schmidt.

Gibson Guitar raid in Memphis getting attention

 
This week's raid by U.S. Fish & Wildlife agents at the Gibson Guitar factory in Downtown Memphis has been attracting a lot of attention from national media. What's not to like about a story featuring $5,000 guitars, exotic tropical woods, shady import-export trade, the enchanting and exceedingly rare silky sifaka lemur, and a chief executive taking to the ramparts against relentless Interior Department bureaucrats enforcing an obscure anti-poaching statute from 1900? The Atlantic has one of the better pieces out there for details and background, and its post supplied some of the links I have used here.

UPDATE: More from The Atlantic: "How to Turn Guitarists into Tea Partiers."
Thank the stars for the Freedom of Information Act: The Smoking Gun digs deep into the annals of law enforcement to present the salacious headline "Behold the Two Dirtiest FBI Reports Ever," reports which, of course, were taken in 1975 in Memphis.

Agents -- whose names were the only things redacted from the documents -- were dispatched to the Lamar Theatre on two separate occasions to view X-rated movies to apparently determine whether the films were obscene.

A pair of G-Men paid $3 apiece to watch a double feature of "Two into Two" and "The Magic Mirror." With seven other cinema fans in attendance, the agents took careful notes about what was unspooling. Their subsequent report includes a scene-by-scene recitation of the films, which seemed to be short on plot, but action-packed.


In the early 1970s, Memphis was ground zero of the FBI's vigorous and, from today's standpoint, seemingly inconceivable investigation of the adult film industry, particularly the 1972 X-rated classic "Deep Throat," namesake of FBI deputy W. Mark Felt in his role as the shadowy Watergate informant. Details of the investigation came out in 2009 in response to a FOIA request by AP after the death of "Deep Throat" director Gerard Damiano. As The Commercial Appeal reported at the time:

(In 1969), Memphis was becoming a distribution hub for films considered obscene at the time. Part of that was because of the city's central location in the country, and part was based on a city administration seen as friendly to First Amendment issues, (then-Asst. U.S. Atty. Larry) Parrish says.

A long federal investigation into the industry, including input from the vice squad of the Los Angeles Police Department, first looked at the film "School Girl." When a federal marshal went to a Memphis theater to seize the film, he saw a preview for the more explicit film "Deep Throat."

"Deep Throat" became the focal point of federal prosecution in Memphis with Parrish as lead prosecutor. After nine weeks of testimony in 1976, a jury convicted 16 defendants, including actor Harry Reems, for conspiring to nationally distribute the film. Shot for $20,000, the film had earned more than $25 million in the United States.

Reems' conviction later was overturned because of a change in pornography laws .

The case was retried in 1978. Three of the 16 defendants were acquitted in the retrial. Charges were dropped against one other defendant, but most were convicted again.

Memphis Mob figure sentenced to 16 years for murder in New Mexico

 
It's time for an update on the Memphis Mob, the reputed drug-trafficking network that allegedly funneled cocaine from New Mexico to Tennessee, and has been connected to murders and robberies in Albuquerque.

KOB-TV in Albuquerque reports that Memphian Terry Johnson was sentenced today to 16 years, the maximum sentence, for the murder of Lemarrus Washington in 2008. Police believed the slaying was gang related.
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