FOX13 Gets Real: Murders aren’t just numbers; they are families

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As COVID-19 spreads across the Mid-South, another public health crisis continues to make headlines. Gun violence. FOX13′s Greg Coy is digging into the heartbreaking data that shows the number of people killed in Memphis has increased while the pandemic also claimed lives.

This is a four-part series where families share their stories while FOX13 digs for answers on what needs to be done to end the killing.

After reading or watching this story, click here to be taken to part two.

Part three will air on FOX13 News at 9 on Monday, March 1.

Gwendolyn Thomas would like to forget 2020, but never will.

On Oct. 5, Thomas got a call from her granddaughter while at work.

“My daddy just shot my mama,” her granddaughter said.

“And I said, ‘What? What did you say?’” Thomas said.

“My dad just shot my mama,” her granddaughter said.

It wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that U.S. Marshals arrested Timmie Cooperwood, the suspect accused of killing Shenika Harvell, a mother of five.

Cooperwood is in jail awaiting trial for her murder.

RELATED: Man wanted for killing woman in Memphis arrested in Minnesota, officials say

Gwendolyn Thomas believes the motive was domestic violence because Cooperwood had broken into the house through a bathroom window and just started shooting.

Harvell was the 234th victim of homicide in a year that claimed the lives of 332 people.

Maj. Chris Moffatt of the Memphis Police Homicide Bureau told FOX13 these aren’t numbers. These are families, circles of friends and co-workers involved who are affected by this.

“Sometimes, we lose sight of the fact that how many we have, or how many we have a year — that is, a number of families and communities that are affected by this,” Moffatt said.

FOX13 investigated the record-breaking number of homicides in Memphis.

RELATED: Memphis sees record-breaking year of homicides in 2020

The specific cause for bloodshed varies among detectives, experts and those affected, but the pandemic is mentioned often as a key cause.

Many criminologists believe COVID-19 is a pandemic of another kind. The virus helped to drive up the homicide numbers across the country and right here in Memphis.

“Nationwide, we have seen an increase in violent crime,” Moffatt said. “So we are not alone in the problem. The pandemic played a role. To what extent, I can’t tell you. I will leave it up to the academics to debate that. I still have a job to do in the meantime.”

According to criminologist Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri at St. Louis, the pandemic had a profound effect on law enforcement and violent crime in Memphis and nationwide.

“Police officers have been out on quarantine because they have the virus, or they’ve been exposed to someone — often a colleague with a virus,” Rosenfeld said. “Those who remain on the job —they’ve been subject to social distancing requirements or their own discretion to maintain distance between themselves and people on the street. And that really curtails the kind of policing activity that can help to reduce violence.”

Pastor Ricky Floyd agrees, noting how COVID-19 cut down on the number of volunteers for his street ministry.

“It is easier to get the people to overcome the fear of a gang member in times past than it was getting people to overcome a pandemic, so my volunteer force was cut drastically in half,” Floyd said.

The pandemic upended lives but did not reduce violent crime.

According to an October 2020 memo from Memphis police to the Memphis City Council Public Safety Committee, officers recovered more than 3,325 guns.

Figures from that same memo showed 58% of homicides could be linked to gang violence, 80% of the victims knew the suspect and 21% were repeat offenders.

“A lot of our murders that we saw is over wars over drugs and territories over drugs,” Floyd said. “They capitalized on the rules. Not known for obeying the rules.”

In May, a storm of protests against the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd gripped the nation.

In Memphis, the protests organized by local activists were emotional, passionate and largely peaceful. Others acted differently.

According to Memphis police data, there was almost one murder every day for a month after the first protest of Floyd’s death at the hands of police.

Rosenfeld said the data warrants more study because “that doesn’t mean we know what the causal connection might be between the protest activity and then the increase in violence. But the correspondence in time between the two is really quite compelling.”

RELATED: Violent crime continues to be a problem in Memphis and Shelby County, up almost a quarter in 2020

Rosenfeld believes this didn’t happen in all communities, just the ones having strained relationships with law enforcement.

“If confidence in the police diminishes sufficiently, what does that mean? It means people in communities are really left on their own,” he said, “to settle disputes and solve other problems without the benefit of formal law enforcement.”

“It is always the right time to do the right thing,” Moffatt said. “We have to tear down that kind of thinking, where our neighborhood is going to handle it, our family is going to handle it. That is what our community pays us for.”

“That is the right way to handle things. And getting that community involvement is paramount to solving these crimes,” he added.

For Thomas, the issues and debates won’t brighten 2020 and won’t bring back her daughter.

When asked about raising her grandchildren after her daughter’s death, Thomas replied, “Very hard. I thought it would never happen to me. But now I know how it feels.”

2021 has started the way 2020 ended — violently.

RELATED: Memphis reports 17 homicides in 13 days of new year

So far in 46 days, there have been over 30 homicides in Memphis.

When asked if Moffatt thinks 2021 will see less crime, he said, “He hoped so,” but admits he can’t guarantee it.

Click here for part two of the series