Memphis Gun Down focuses on crime prevention

Intervention is a major component of Memphis Gun Down’s efforts to reduce youth gun crimes in the city.

For Memphis Gun Down, the mission is more than what the name implies.

It’s a misconception to think the organization’s primary focus is removing guns from the streets. In fact, Memphis Gun Down exists to prevent the city’s youth from ever picking up a gun.

“Whatever the conflict is, you might be in desperation or survival mode or up to no good, whatever the reason for picking up a gun we want to put you in a frame of mind that you don’t want to pick up the gun,” said Bishop Mays, Director of Memphis Gun Down. “We in America, we make millions of guns every year. There’s a gun for everyone who wants one. Families who have ownership of guns has declined but guns are still in the millions. We’re concerned about illegal access of weapons and how easy it is to get a gun. We’re concerned about, ‘Hey dude, make a better decision. Don’t pick up a gun to resolve your issues.’”

When Memphis Gun Down started in 2012, the idea was the organization would be a viable way to look at how to deal with issues in the community on a broader scale, not just youth gun violence.

“It wraps around to other areas in the community,” Mays said. “When a young man makes a poor decision he may have educational concerns, issues at home, there might be gang pressure. It might be an illness. With our intervention efforts, we try to find out and connect young people to what are their ills. Once we connect with a young man or young lady, how can we help you change the path you’re on? We try to connect those persons with resources.”

Mays retired from the Memphis Police Department in 2012 after a 30-year career. He connected to the Memphis Gun Down effort, which is part of what was started as the Mayor’s Innovation Team, now known as Innovate Memphis. A three-year Bloomberg Philanthropies grant provided the funding for the organization, which was tasked with looking at economic development and crime concerns, specifically youth gun violence.

The innovation team adapted a model for the city of Memphis that focuses on gang and gun prevention. Memphis Gun Down consists of five components: suppression, community mobilization, youth opportunities, intervention, and organizational change and development.

Suppression is placing a focus of law enforcement efforts on the percentage of the community committing gun violence. Community mobilization brings together organizations, residents and law enforcement to shift perception away from a culture of acceptance toward one where gun violence isn’t tolerated. Youth opportunities includes placing an emphasis on building the educational and technical skills of young people.

Intervention is a coordinated approach to intervening at the first sign of potential violence and organizational change and development is the transformation of policies, practices and systems in the city to reduce youth gun violence.

Mays is part of a group that includes nine members of the street intervention team, which includes Delvin Lane. Crime, gun and gang prevention starts with connecting to the city’s youth and it’s the intervention team that does that work.

There are a variety of ways the organization comes into contact with the community’s youth, he said, including the intervention teams that work in hospitals as well as public schools in targeted areas.

“We hang out at the community centers, we do assessments,” he said. “If the youth is under 18 we meet with the parents.”

Memphis Gun Down has a variety of ways it reaches the community. In the summer, for example, Safe Summer includes the Summer Night Lights program that is an effort to keep community centers open during high crime times in high-crime areas. The idea is to provide a safe place for everyone in the community to go. It started in Frayser and expanded to Hickory Hill last year, with the idea it will grow to Orange Mound this year.

Twilight Basketball takes place from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Targeting men ages 16 to 20, Twilight Basketball looks to take that age group of men who are more likely to be involved in poor decisions to play basketball instead. The effort saw 700 participants in Orange Mound and South Memphis last year.

Memphis Gun Down began its focus on specific outlined areas in Frayser and South Memphis, partnering with the Memphis Police Department and a number of community stakeholders. Memphis Gun Down implemented its theories and measured outcomes in the two communities.

Between 2012 and 2014 there was a reduction of crime in the Frayser focus area of over 20 percent. In South Memphis there was a reduction of 55 percent. The crimes measured were the most violent including homicide, aggravated assault and aggravated robbery.

“We had some level of success and felt that by focusing on those components of Memphis Gun Down, it would be viable,” Mays said. “Youth opportunity is a particular challenge. It works around economics and requires a lot of funding for a significant impact.”

The neighborhood focus areas since have expanded to include Orange Mound and the Mount Moriah area near Hickory Hill.

The focus areas are where Memphis Gun Down examines the crime metrics and how the organization’s efforts have an impact.

Mays said Memphis Gun Down wants to see more involvement from the city’s vast faith-based organizations. Those churches are on the ground in neighborhoods that are dealing with crime. One of Memphis Gun Down’s community engagement activities is a clergy conference that is meant to get that community more engaged.

“We’d like to see more of those churches extend outreach to people struggling with decisions,” he said.

“Yes, we can lock up individuals but they go away and come back,” Mays continued. “As a government and community, what are we doing to help integrate those persons into our society? … If we have alternatives to integrate them back in they might make better decisions.”

Mays’ background in the Memphis Police Department gives a unique knowledge for the work, much like Lane’s. He was involved in Streets Ministries for several years at a time when the organization built two multimillion dollar facilities in Memphis. But before that he was what he calls a “local bad guy.”

“In essence, you have a retired police officer and Delvin is a man of the world,” Mays said. “He is vital to those efforts. When in a city where you have thousands of youth not in school you have a lot of idle minds. Also have a community with a lot of people influenced by gangs. You have an impoverished community doing desperate things. With Delvin being boots on the ground, he can communicate with any level of individuals in the community. Through his previous work and life he knows many individuals in foundations and has also rubbed elbows with many individuals making poor decisions. I can serve as that link to the criminal justice community.”

As Mays says, the Centers for Disease Control considers crime a public health concern, and the community needs to treat it as such.

“We as a community, we have to understand that this community is made up of all of us and that includes individuals making poor decisions,” he said. “If we’re going to tell someone to put guns down and stop what you’re doing, what do we offer them? How are we reaching out to connect to these individuals and understand their position of where they are? They will make decisions that will get our attention one way or another, often times in a negative way.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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