Parts of Mississippi’s capital city are seeing a “saturation” of state police that Gov. Tate Reeves promises will counter a spike in crime and violence that has worsened since the pandemic began. The governor is bringing in the Mississippi Highway Patrol, Capitol Police and Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics officers to beef up patrols and drug enforcement inside the Capitol Complex Improvement District and along state highways, he said at a press briefing on July 15.
The Mississippi Legislature voted in the spring to allow more state enforcement inside the Jackson district, with much of the discussion focused then on misdemeanor arrests. “To have a safe Jackson, we must have a safe downtown,” Reeves said.
No Jackson elected or police officials were present because Reeves said he didn’t invite them. The strategy created a stir in this majority-Black city with heavy pockets of poverty, limited resources and a broken water-sewer system that the State of Mississippi has been slow to help to repair.
Critics question whether punitive policing in the capital city will have a real effect on violence there. Much of Jackson’s violence is domestic between people who know each other, not random street crime.
“In order to realize true impact, it is necessary to also stand up and bolster the social supports and community programs that lift up our communities by addressing issues of poverty, joblessness, mental health, gaps in education and opportunity, and more,” Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba said of Reeves’ plan in a statement.
Causes of Crime in Jackson
The mayor and many others, including crime-prevention experts, say problems, or “precursors,” that lead to crime must be addressed at a root level for real change to occur, rather than policing surges to react to problematic symptoms that result when deep causes are left unaddressed.
A 2016 State of Mississippi-funded study of Jackson crime found that the top two precursors for adult crime were young people dropping out of school and being put into the criminal-justice system. Introducing young people into the system, or a police car, or rough treatment by police officers, can thus have the opposite effect of decreasing community safety.
State Defender André De Gruy emphasizes that the State expanding its police force in the capital city is not enough to remedy Jackson’ crime. “We’ve got to do more than just simply put more police on the road,” De Gruy said in an interview. “The problem is much bigger than that.”
Reeves’ solution invokes two recently passed laws—Senate Bill 2788 and House Bill 974. These bills, which went into effect July 1, have already resulted in increased traffic stops and police presence, Department of Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell said on July 15.
“I can tell you that since these bills went into effect on July 1st, the Mississippi Highway Patrol has issued 87 traffic citations within the city of Jackson and over 14 DUI citations within the city of Jackson,” Tindell said. “So already there’s been an increase in the presence, and that presence will continue to grow with this saturation.”
It was unclear how those low-level arrests would prevent the kinds of violence Jackson and other cities are experiencing during the ongoing pandemic, however.
Criminal-justice experts say that COVID-19 creates a perfect storm of conditions for increased crime and violence. “When you look at the reasons that people generally offer for any major spike in violence, all of them come into play with COVID. You have a little bit of everything,” Caterina Roman, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., said in a July 6, 2021, interview with The Crime Report at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“You have so many people buying guns,” she continued. “You have more hurt people who will hurt people. You have disinvestment that has been exacerbated. You have governments that aren’t funding parks, rec centers, summer jobs. You don’t have in-person religious services. You don’t have outreach workers on the streets or the typical social services. And then you have compounded stress.”
Roman calls for smart enforcement strategies that avoid “sending police out on calls that have nothing to do with violence” and warns that “[y]ou can reduce violence but harm people” in the process of responding to crime spikes.
She doesn’t shy away from urging prevention solutions that have little to do with flashing blue lights. “Libraries, parks, rec centers, pools, free internet—those are all crime prevention activities and resources,” she told the New York Times last year.
Massive Surge in Traffic Stops
Mississippi is taking a more punitive approach, however, including a massive surge in traffic stops. In the 2021 session, Senate Bill 2788 removed regulations on the Mississippi Highway Patrol, which had prevented them from establishing stationary radar installations inside cities with populations over 15,000—essentially making it easier for them to patrol parts of Jackson.
“It will be felt on the interstates,” Tindell said. “It will be felt within the city.”
Another impetus for SB 2788 and the increased Highway Patrol presence is incidents of drag racing in neighborhoods and along highways, which culminated in racers blockading Interstate 55 during the wee hours of New Year’s Day, which Reeves called “nefarious acts.”
“In the event that an interstate is shut down, the Mississippi Highway Patrol has to be immediately contacted,” Reeves said.
House Bill 974 transferred Capitol Police from the Department of Finance and Administration to the Department of Public Safety, while increasing their jurisdiction to include the greater Capitol Complex Improvement District, granting them overlapping power with JPD.
“Within the Capitol Complex District, Capitol Police will be saturating its resources along the streets of the capitol district, ensuring that all available Capitol Police officers are mobilized in their vehicles, creating a greater visibility within the Capitol district,” Tindell said. “The Capitol District extends from Jackson State University, all the way to I-55, and up into the Fondren area or just past the University of Mississippi Medical Center.”
From Drug Operations to ‘Bandos’
Commissioner Tindell also said the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics will increase secret drug-enforcement efforts in Jackson. “The Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics will be increasing its clandestine drug operations with its federal and state and local partners within the city of Jackson,” Tindell said. “Often what the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics does is unrecognized. They’re not uniformed officers, but they will be launching operations trying to reach and attack the drug problem within the city of Jackson.”
Tindell and Reeves agreed that the measures will not be enough to resolve crime in Jackson, but Tindell called the initiative a “step in the right direction,” while Reeves opined that he did not “have enough hours in the day” to speak to the full causes of crime in Jackson. The governor did not refer to any root causes identified by crime-prevention experts, including racism, trauma, mental health, poverty, educational inequity, poor reentry options after incarceration, and lack of opportunity, jobs and transportation to get there.
The 2016 State-funded BOTEC reports about Jackson crime did address those issues, however, as well as the proliferation of abandoned and crumbling houses in the capital city, and their connection to crime activity. (The State of Mississippi owns many of those properties.) “Neighborhood blight is part of the vicious cycle in Jackson; crime causes blight, and blight fosters crime,” the State-funded BOTEC study warned in 2016. “Abandoned houses, called ‘bandos,’ shelter runaway youth and provide a haven for drug use or headquarters for gang activity.”
The study warned about conditions that seed cycles of crime and violence. “The population represented in these accounts is for the most part poor, with childhoods marked by loss, violence and neglect,” the BOTEC precursors report stated.
The series of reports detailed a variety of potential solutions shown nationally to reduce crime and violence as an alternative to increasing potentially harmful massive (and expensive) police surges, but warned that Jackson does not have the available resources for many of these efforts.
“A variety of interventions have been shown to reduce the propensity to criminal activity, and especially to violence, but some of those interventions are expensive, and Jackson and Hinds County have limited resources. Those resources can generate more public-safety value if they are concentrated on the highest-risk students,” BOTEC researchers recommended.
The study identified that, as of 2016, 225 students within Jackson Public Schools were at the highest risk and most in need of direct intervention, access to opportunities and other solutions. BOTEC also said students in the highest-risk category are often the last likely to receive interventions.
Not Addressing Violence?
“At its core, the government’s most basic responsibility is to protect its citizens and residents,” Gov. Reeves said July 15. The governor cited Jackson’s “never-ending cycle of violence” as the impetus.
But to observers like De Gruy, muscular language around enforcement ignores the evidence-based social elements of crime. The state defender said he welcomes some additional police presence, but added that a more nuanced look at the types of crimes committed might reveal much that increased police presence alone can solve.
“I think one of the things that it seems to me is lost is these conversations start by saying ‘crime is out of control, crime is on the rise,’ and there’s just simply no evidence to support that,” he said. “We know that not just in Jackson, but in larger cities all across the country that homicides are up.”
De Gruy said the Jackson Police Department has released specific data on aggravated assaults (which, in Mississippi, includes attempted-murder).
“JPD has said most of these cases involve people who know each other,” he said. “This is a little bit different dynamic t”
That fact means that increasing police presence is less likely to actually reduce aggravated assaults that are happening, De Gruy pointed out. “This isn’t simply what you see a lot when you see a surge in car burglaries or robberies that a police presence will directly address that problem because those are often opportunity crimes, and so if you have a higher police presence, then the person’s less likely to walk up and rob somebody or break into a car or even break into a house if there’s patrol,” he said.
“But that’s not where we’re seeing the increase in crime.”
De Gruy mentioned alternatives to policing such as Strong Arms of Jxn, a Jackson-based group that focuses efforts on preventing crime through community outreach using “credible messengers.” It is a model that hires and trains formerly incarcerated citizens to work with young people and those at high risk of crime where they are to steer them away from violence and retaliation. When funded adequately, credible-messenger/violence interrupter programs are both an alternative and a complement to police surges and sweeps and can reduce costs associated with violence, human and otherwise, studies show.
The program is based on the Cure Violence model developed by Chicago epidemiologist Gary Slutkin that treats violence as a virus that will spread exponentially if left untreated and uncontained, much like COVID-19 and its variants.
“If they saved one life, then all their efforts are worth it,” De Gruy said.
Dr. Caterina Roman told The Crime Report that she cannot see a downside to the Cure Violence model when done correctly—unlike what can happen with some other kinds of law-enforcement-driven enforcement strategies. “I would have to think long and hard about who is burdened by Cure Violence,” she said. “What are the unintended consequences of using credible messengers to go into the community and be pro-social mentors and caseworkers?”
‘We Can’t Sit Around and Wait …’
For Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, and the author of the Senate version of HB 974, the State of Mississippi has to use tools—and police—at its disposal. He made it clear that the research on root causes of crime is not a high priority for him now. “It is good in all manner of criminal justice to look at the root causes and look at the data to determine what is causing that, but we can’t sit around and wait for those things to happen and somebody to present a paper before we act on it,” he said. “People have a right to be safe in their community.”
Wiggins has long taken an increase-policing approach to crime, and in several legislative sessions introduced unsuccessful bills to expand the state’s gang law to make it easier to arrest someone for allegedly being associated with a gang.
Jackson Mayor Lumumba struck a chord of reserved gratitude for the governor’s initiative, while highlighting concerns over the program’s limited scope.
“We are pleased to see within the plan shared today that the State of Mississippi and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation is moving towards the transparency that we identified as an urgent need when the City of Jackson created the Police Identification Task Force,” he said in his statement. “That said, the problem of crime is not going to be solved through policing alone.”
Lumumba was first elected as a policing and criminal-justice reformer, but has allowed the Jackson Police Department to participate in a number of policing surges, including a collaborative with then-U.S. Attorney Michael Hurst in late 2017 in “Project Eject,” also an effort to increase policing sweeps and gang arrests in the capital city. Still-rising increases in violence and homicides in Jackson started around the same time as Project Eject, which did not result in lowered violence as pledged.
The governor seems unlikely to take the mayor’s comments to heart. At the press event announcing the new initiative, WLBT’s C.J. LeMaster asked Reeves why, at an event highlighting policing in Mississippi’s capital city, no City, Jackson Police Department or Hinds County officials were present.
“Well,” Reeves replied, “I presume they’re not here because we didn’t invite them to be here.”
Although state leadership maintains its habit of separation from city officials, Lumumba’s comments maintained a tepid willingness to collaborate with the state.
“The State’s efforts to better streamline its law enforcement agencies and bolster communication in and around the Capitol City Complex and State highways is within its jurisdiction,” he said. “The City and Jackson Police Department welcome the commitment to greater collaboration and support.”
This story original appeared in the Mississippi Free Press. Donna Ladd contributed to this report. The Mississippi Free Press is a statewide nonprofit news outlet that provides most of its stories free to other media outlets to republish. Write [email protected] for information.