City Council wants ‘street takeovers’ to stop

Wild scene on Winchester Road near airport prompts spirited debate


Following a weekend street “takeover” incident near the Memphis International Airport, Memphis City Council Homeland Security & Public Safety Committee members pressed interim Memphis Police Chief Cerelyn “CJ” Davis on solutions to an enduring street racing phenomena that turns city streets into impromptu drag racing strips during the Tuesday, February 20 meeting.

The latest occurrence happened at Winchester Ave. at an airport underpass. A photo showed a darkened roadside flanked with cars. A silhouetted figure stood atop a vehicle holding what appears to be a firearm.

“I can only imagine, if you were coming into Memphis or leaving Memphis via the airport and you saw some activity like this, that you probably wouldn’t want to return to Memphis, Tennessee,” said council member Ford Canale. “This type of behavior scares people so much that it makes them want to consider moving out of this city.”

In response, Davis said there was a good reason why police couldn’t respond quickly to the Winchester Road takeover: They were trying to tackle street racing activity elsewhere. 

At the time, many of the undermanned police department’s resources were deployed at the Mt. Moriah area. A large-scale joint operation to curb street racing incidents was underway. In addition to MPD personnel, the effort included Tennessee Highway Patrol members. Davis is in talks to have 15 THP officers assigned to the area on a permanent basis. 

The Winchester Road takeover is the only known incident to occur at this location. Nevertheless, the sounds of racing engines fill the late-night sky in several quarters of the city on a near-nightly basis. 

Other areas of South Memphis, along with the Memphis-Arkansas Bridge-area of Downtown and Frayser also experience frequent racing.

The Airways Station area is the next stop for the patrol. 

“It’s always a resource issue. When we have those types of incidents it does require us to send a number of officers to try to curtail for safety reasons, not just for the officers, but also for the public too,” said Davis.

Although the efforts in Mt. Moriah reduced incidents, they also expose the whack-a-mole nature of the problem. However, owing to social media, there are occasionally breadcrumbs leading to the next illegal event.

“We know we have to continue to move where these problems are and try to get in front of them before they actually happen,” said Davis. “Because they’re moving and a lot of communication is sort of under the radar now through social media, we just have to really respond quickly when we see it happen.”

Under the First Amendment, officers are allowed to monitor social media if they think it’s done in commission of a crime – like organizing a takeover. Looking into a potential protest, on the other hand, is prohibited.

In addition to manpower and investigative work, Davis is working with council members Jana Swearengen-Washington and Philip Spinosa on a draft ordinance to hold an offender’s vehicle for up to 10 days. Currently, those arrested can quickly retrieve their vehicle upon release.

“Most of these individuals are people who have jobs, who have nice cars. Holding their car is going to stop them from going out and doing this type of activity. Then, have progressively higher penalties on the second, or third time,” said Davis.

The proposal, while a start, lacked the teeth sought by others on the council. 

“I don’t know where it stands at the state level, but this is where civil forfeiture would be helpful. We take them and they don’t get them back. Not ten days, but they never get those cars back. We can sell them at auction, or we can crush ‘em…whatever. This has got to stop,” said Canale.

Tennessee State Bill 2241, which would expand civil forfeiture to include drag racing, is currently under consideration. Under present law, drag racing is a Class B misdemeanor which can result in a one-year driver’s license suspension if convicted.

The street racing discussion was prefaced by a disagreement between Davis and Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy over the murder clearance rate for 2022.

After the DA’s office reported a 31.2 percent rate to committee members, Davis held a brief private discussion with Mulroy. For its part, the MPD reported a 62.3 percent clearance rate for 2022. It was followed by a 45.7 percent rate for 2023, adjusted through November 20.

Relying on Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and FBI data, Mulroy said he would double-check the numbers.

Those he presented to council members were gathered through the National Incident-Based Reporting System (NIBRS). It was presented alongside the national solve rate for cities larger than 250,000, which is 46.2%.

There were 248 homicides classified as criminal murders in 2022. A homicide is defined as the taking of a life, justified or not. A Daily Memphian study in December estimated 56.4 percent of 2022 cases have been solved.