MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Downtown is the heart of the city. It’s where tourists flock, our sports teams play, Broadway shows take the stage, conventions are held, and where, unfortunately, criminals have been prowling.
A couple visiting Memphis for a concert in December was riding scooters back to their downtown hotel when they told police a car pulled up and five men armed with guns got out.
They demanded their belongings as they reportedly hit the male victim repeatedly with the butt of the gun while pointing another gun at his girlfriend.
Days later, Jennifer Woodall says her 2016 Dodge Charger was stolen in downtown Memphis.
“My friend had my car, and he was going to his cousin’s party at an Airbnb on South Main Street,” she said.
She shared this picture with us and posted it on social media. She says she received tips it was possibly seen in Frayser and on Getwell. She hasn’t yet recovered her only transportation.
“If I don’t have a way to get around, it’s no school, no work, no nothing. That means my bills don’t get paid or anything else,” Woodall said.
Vehicle thefts, car break-ins, and vandalism make up the majority of crimes reported downtown in recent months. You can see that in the crime tracking map below.
From the end of October through mid-December, several reports detailed similar stories. The victims say they were in downtown. Some had left a holiday party or a bar. They were walking to their hotel or car when they say a vehicle pulled up and several people in masks got out.
In every story, they’re armed with a gun and demand belongings before getting away.
“We damn well have to make people feel safe when they come down here,” Councilman Chase Carlisle said in a December meeting.
He was vocal about the crime occurring downtown, and his frustration remains.
“Crime is all over the city, but the way we pay bills for the city of Memphis is through property taxes and sales taxes. A big generator of that is people coming into the downtown area for tourism,” he said.
Carlisle, who’s family invested millions into One Beale in downtown, says he’s concerned crime will discourage other investors.
Last year, the city’s data shows just over 4,600 crimes were reported in the downtown Zip code of 38103. That number the highest in years.
Most of it was property crime, but some violent crime like aggravated assault is also up.
“As we continue to see violent crime and crime go up in certain areas, it makes investing much more difficult. Not going to say it’s going to go away, but it makes it more expensive and ultimately people may choose other places to put their money than Memphis,” Carlisle said.
Paul Young, who heads the Downtown Memphis Commission, said, “his concern is our concern.”
“Crime does have an impact. Our goal is to demonstrate downtown is still strong. We have seen interest in downtown. We are seeing business owners want to put their locations in our area,” he assured us.
Young says they are addressing safety concerns. They are working with police, testing out new cameras with artificial intelligence and adding an overnight shift to the Blue Suede Brigade.
“We think that will be a big boost to have the presence. They’ll do roving security checks through portions of downtown,” he said.
Young says they are addressing safety concerns.
Mayor Jim Strickland says he’s also putting pressure on the courts to address the issues.
“The challenge that we have is that in 2022, Memphis police arrested 2,000 people for car break-ins or vehicle thefts, and they’re almost immediately released from prison,” he said.
Another concern you brought to WREG’s attention was lighting. This weekend, our crews spotted multiple streetlights out in the downtown area like on Front Street where police report a vehicle was stolen. It’s unclear if the light was out when it happened.
We saw lights out along South Main and on Beale. MLGW says it’s received reports of those lights, and they should be fixed within 30 days.
MLGW also stated at the end of January, crews will begin replacing street lights in the city with LED versions, and those will be brighter. They’ll start replacing downtown street lights in April.
“Incremental changes are not going to get us there. We need big ideas,” Carlisle said.
He says the city has to think long term. One of his ideas is more police patrols.
MPD is short on staff, so in the upcoming budget, he plans on asking for a 5% raise for officers to help recruit and retain.
“It is not a police or end all be all answer, but if we don’t have police officers, we won’t have the manpower for the coverage that we need to be present or visible,” he said.
Memphis Police responded to Carlisle in an email stating they would “try to provide more manpower and patrols” in downtown and got overtime approved for more details in parking lots.
This past weekend, four people in ski masks reportedly tried to steal a vehicle on Second. It escalated into a shoot out and two people were injured.
A massive crime scene sat there for hours for all to see.
Victims like Woodall will tell you those scenes, those actions, all have an impact.