I’ve always been interested in the American tradition of self-government. For most of us, that interest is abstract. It became very concrete for me when I was sworn in as state representative for House District 97 in November. It is great responsibility and privilege to serve as a voice for Shelby County in the Tennessee House of Representatives.
Without a doubt, we are living through some very challenging times. But, I believe we are seeing the beginning of the end of this pandemic with the arrival of promising Covid-19 vaccines and declining case numbers for January and February. I have faith that with patience and grace we will emerge stronger on the other side of this health crisis.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has created other problems we must now confront. What started out as a public health issue has now become one of public safety. The closure of schools, the loss of social structure and economic distress have led to a disturbing rise in major violent crimes and gang activity in Memphis.
According to a recent report published by the Memphis Shelby Crime Commission and The University of Public Safety Institute in October, aggravated assaults were up in 2020 by about 27 percent in Memphis and Shelby County. Homicides increased by about 63 percent in Memphis, and increased by 55 percent countywide in 2020. Let that sink in.
Even more tragic is that we are witnessing a dramatic uptick – a 28 percent increase by some estimates – in the cases of domestic abuse and the sexual abuse of children. Thanks to efforts spearheaded by my predecessor, former State Rep. Jim Coley, Tennessee has some of the strongest victim’s rights and human trafficking laws in the country. Still, there is more work to do.
Shelby County must be a safe place for all its citizens. We must do everything in our power to protect our most vulnerable citizens from abuse.
That is why I am introducing legislation to combat violence and give law enforcement more tools to prevent abuse before it happens.
I have introduced House Bill 629 that will a cross-agency central database for Shelby County public records. This will give law enforcement, health services and child advocacy agencies greater access to tools that will help them more easily work together to identify at-risk individuals, recognize repeat offenders of abuse and be better advocates for victims. This is not an erosion of privacy, but a coordination of public records to better serve citizens. House Bill 628 establishes the same central database of public records but deals with abuse of older and vulnerable adults.
Sadly, violence can be found anywhere. Incidents of road rage are also on the rise. To keep Tennessee’s roadways safer, I am introducing two bills this legislative session to deter these kinds of crimes. House Bill 22 increases the penalty for drag racing to a Class A misdemeanor, making it comparable to a Driving Under the Influence charge. Drag racing is a very intentional act that puts innocent lives in danger and this law needs updating. The other, House Bill 981, increases penalties for reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon to a Class D felony when someone discharges a firearm from a vehicle during a road rage incident.
Violence of any kind devastates communities. It hinders the healthy development of our children. Neighborhoods fall apart when they become dangerous. Businesses close, playgrounds and public spaces empty and people move away.
We can’t wish these problems away or hope they’ll get better on their own. Instead, we must be proactive. We can remove dangerous criminals from our streets, but we must look out for one another and work together to prevent these kinds of crimes before they happen. More importantly, we must give law enforcement and first responders more – not less – support and resources to prevent crime and protect our communities. No single factor has been effective in reducing crime than the partnership between law enforcement and the citizens they serve.
We have a great task ahead of us, but I know together we can build a stronger, safer Shelby County for the next generation.
John Gillespie was elected to the District 97 seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives in November. The district includes parts of Bartlett, Cordova, and East Memphis. He can be reached at [email protected] or at 615-741-8201.