Coronavirus may be behind crime wave, putting pressure on Memphis police, forensics lab

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West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center experiences 25% uptick in workload

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A crime wave is crashing down on Memphis, and many are blaming coronavirus.

Its impact is putting strain on investigators and the medical examiner’s office, and causing immeasurable grief for families.

Aison Golden

Two weeks after celebrating his sixth birthday, Aison Golden was inside his home on Par Avenue in Frayser. Police say someone outside fired shots, striking and killing the little boy.

Aison was an innocent child who loved super heroes, dancing and his family. He is one of 20 children killed this year, according to MPD. The youngest was just 9 months old.

The past few weeks, Memphians have seen how gun violence has destroyed families. It’s even difficult for MPD Director Michael Rallings to grasp.

“I’m concerned about the aggravated assaults. I am definitely concerned about murder,” Rallings said.

The Crime Commission reports that between April and June, violent crime rose 9.7% in Memphis.

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MPD says in June, officers responded to 1,891 calls of shots fired. That’s about 63 calls a day. Last June, there were half as many calls.

You can see a mirrored trend in the month of May. Aggravated assaults are up 15% and murders in Memphis are up nearly 30%.

Benjamin Figura is the administrator at the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center, where his team performs autopsies to certify the cause and manner of death.

In the first half of this year, from January to June, he said they’ve done about 200 more cases than in same period in 2019.

That’s a 25% increase in their typical workload, all due to more homicides and an uptick in overdose deaths during the pandemic. He said they also have been handling some suspected COVID deaths.

“It’s recommended that a pathologist do 250 examinations in a year. So this is 200 additional cases in the span of six months,” Figura said. “We’ve gotten to the point where one pathologist has not been able to handle the caseload.”

Figura says his team already wears gowns, gloves, masks and other protective gear, and they are staffed seven days a week. However, his main concern right now, is the future.

“If it does continue long-term, we may have to look for additional staffing in another six months or so,” he said.

Mayor Jim Strickland believes one cause of the recent crime wave could be that positive youth programs have been put on pause or have limited operations due to social distancing guidelines.

“Those positive influences around young people have been lessened but the negative influences are probably increasing,” he said.

As researchers work to pinpoint the exact reason, other cities across the country are dealing with the the same trends. New York City and Chicago also bracing for one of their most violent summers.

“The loss of any life is too many and we’re now on pace to break the all-time murder (record) in the city of Memphis,” Strickland said.

The crime commission says overall gun related incidents are up 23% right now in Memphis, but noted that robberies are down 9%.

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