MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Interstate shootings have been happening far too often in Memphis, but police say there’s one thing they’re not getting that could help them solve these crimes — information from witnesses.
Already this year, Memphis police have counted 45 shootings on the interstates around the city.
On Feb. 13, on I-240 close to Norris Road, a driver told police he saw two vehicles racing. He tried to brake and get out of their way, but one of the cars opened fire, shooting him in the thigh.
A month later, a mother said she and her son, who’s battling brain cancer, left St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital when a car tried to pass her. She says the car then pulled up beside her and she heard a loud pop. A bullet hit the back of her SUV.
Eight days later, Alex Warren said he was on I-385 headed to meet his new grandson when he bumped into another car in traffic. The 70-year-old said he was trying to get over when he heard several gun shots coming from the vehicle he hit.
That’s what his car looked like afterwards. He’s lucky he wasn’t hurt.
“I’m still wondering why? Why?” Warren said.
It’s a question many drivers are asking, and police say most of the time it has to do with road rage.
“It’s very frustrating,” said Lt. Jimmy Lewis with MPD’s Violent Crime Unit. “We’re not getting a lot of help from the public.”
Lewis said even when the shootings take place in the middle of rush hour with dozens of witnesses around, witnesses don’t call. He said people need to call and report what they saw like the shooter’s car and license plate.
“I truly feel that they believe someone else has called and their information not be critical to the investigation,” he said. “We have solved six cases this year so far on interstate shootings and in each one of those cases, people captured a tag number for a victim or witness.”
EW Chapman is the executive director of CrimeStoppers, a program that helps people anonymously provide information about a criminal activity. He said tips are down overall over the past eight months and tips on interstate shootings is even more rare.
“For a while, I thought it was COVID, because I thought people weren’t up and around and hearing things going on and talking. I don’t really have an answer,” Chapman said.
It’s left police trying to solve and stop the violent crimes on their own. MPD says it’s increased patrols on the interstates by posting up in marked and unmarked vehicles.
In March, now-former Police Director Michael Rallings put pressure on the state for support.
The governor told WREG he’s met with the Department of Safety, which oversees the Tennessee Highway Patrol, about the interstate shootings.
“I can’t tell you what direction we’ll go, but we are very aware that this is a problem,” Tenn. Gov. Bill Lee said.
Meanwhile, THP said even though it never received a formal request for help from anyone in Memphis, it’s shifted more resources to the Bluff City.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland says he’s been requesting help from the state for a long time.
His chief communications officer added, “Even without those attempts, THP should not need a formal request to manage what is already part of their responsibility.”
Interstate shootings continue to rise. Last year, police said the city broke a record with 83 reports. We’re already on track this year to surpass that.
Lewis said changes to state law allowing more guns in cars may play a role.
“Now, when there is road rage, they have access to a firearm they can use to try to solve their problems,” he said.
And Tennessee lawmakers expanded gun rights even more this year, allowing residents 21 and older to carry a firearm, open or concealed, without a permit.
Rep. John Gillespie (R-Memphis) said he’s working to draft a bill that would beef up the consequences for those who open fire on an interstate while driving recklessly.
“I have been working with the DA’s conference, the Association of Police Chiefs, the sheriff’s association as well, to make sure everyone is on the same page,” Gillespie said.
While getting on the same page seems to been challenging, police say one thing is certain: If you see something, say something.
What to do if you see an interstate shooting
If you have info that can help police solve an interstate shooting you can either call the non-emergency line at 901-545-COPS to give your tip, or do it anonymously through Crime Stoppers at 528-CASH.