Wednesday, July 13, 2005
Mayor Frank Melton's campaign pivoted on the promise of a safer, crime-free Jackson in the months leading up to his recent election to the office of Jackson mayor. That same promise was the gist of his message to the more than 500-member audience attending his July 4 inaugural celebration behind City Hall.
Melton's speech featured perky demands of the criminal element in the city: "Pack up and get out, it's over," he warned, after naming specific names as examples of those who should start packing.
"We are coming, and we are coming strong," Melton said, promising to deal with crime in "way you have never seen before."
The 55-year-old Melton took his vow to the streets within hours, heading up a strong-arm push of police presence in the community. Packing a gun and sporting a shiny brass-colored badge despite past claims by former JPD chief Robert Moore that the television executive has no police training, Melton led officers into a sweep of neighborhoods off U.S. 80, which included police checkpoints at Ellis Avenue and Lynch Street, visits to neighborhood gas stations and door-knocking at some hotels in the neighborhood.
Local television stations were invited on those raids, filming hotel visits with police SWAT teams piling out of vehicles and flooding around the doors of tenants. Employees at the Tarrymore Hotel on Terry Road and U.S. 80 claim that police did not ask permission at the hotel office to search the premises and only visited the office to request the attendant to convince one reluctant tenant to open his door. The U.S. Constitution does not permit forced entry without a warrant, says Mississippi School of Law professor Matthew Steffey.
Tarrymore Hotel owner Bob Patel initially said the raid was unnecessary, telling reporters that the hotel did not harbor a criminal element and arguing that the raids ruined business. Days later, Patel had a change of heart, saying he would meet the next raid with "coffee and doughnuts."
Prisoner rights attorney Ron Welch called the sweeps "a good thing" but said he worried that they could be derailed if laws and procedure are not carefully followed.
"There are laws that have to be followed in these things, and you just can't tell, unless you're there, whether or not they're being followed," Welch said. "I'd hate to see them fail because of technicalities."
Two more nights of sweeps in different sections of the city resulted in many arrests, mostly misdemeanors. "I was surprised to open up a trunk and find an AK-47 and a sawed-off shotgun with a bunch of teenagers in the car," Melton told reporters at the July 6 confirmation of Shirlene Anderson as Jackson's new $114,321-a-year police chief.
"I'm not going to have that, and I'm in a little trouble over that because I think the law says I'm supposed to leave those guns in the car because we didn't have anything on the driver until we found the stolen gun, but I'm telling you that there's no way on earth that I would turn a 19-year-old child loose with an assault rifle and a sawed-off shot-gun. When we found the stolen gun, that gave us probable cause to go on and do what we had to do."
Jacob Ray, special assistant to Attorney General Jim Hood, said his office could not comment on whether or not any laws regarding police procedure had been broken in the sweeps, saying a judge would have to decide.
"That would not fall in the realm of what we're involved in making decisions on," said Ray. "That's going to be a question of fact, is the way it was explained to me. Probable cause to take action—that would be in the court's realm."
Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson said she could not comment on the results of the sweeps because none of the paperwork had crossed her desk and that most of the busts were misdemeanors that "never come to my office." City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans, also approved by the council for her $113,000-a-year post, did not immediately return calls.
Mississippi ACLU Executive Director Nsombi Lambright said she was unnerved by the filmed reports of the crime sweep, which included a 16-year-old boy being questioned by a SWAT-uniformed Melton surrounded by television cameras.
"I was disturbed by the images of young people on the news last night," said Lambright. "We won't know until the criminal process unfolds whether or not some of those busts were illegal. Was (the minor) charged with anything? Will he be found guilty? Those are unanswered questions, but unfortunately this kid's picture is already on the minds of whoever watched that newscast."
A Place for the 'Bad Guys'?
With the Hinds County Jail regularly filled to capacity, Melton may have to find new storage space for the incoming results of the effective raids. Melton has promised to build a 150-bed holding facility for detainees and expand the court system to encompass a 24-hour cycle for speedier prosecution. Welch sent letters to both city and county officials, calling for an additional adult local detention facility, saying "you can't really fight crime if you don't have enough space to lock up accused criminals."
Initially, funding for the holding facility was proposed to come from cuts to city staff. Melton declared in his inaugural speech that he would reduce the size of city government. Administrative Director Peyton Prospere said funding priorities lay beyond a holding facility at the moment, however. Prospere explained that health insurance is going up and that overtime is a big issue with both the fire and police departments. With its fleet of hundreds of vehicles, the inevitable increase in gasoline prices is also affecting the city budget.
"We're going to be looking at (the holding facility), but there are a number of other priorities," Prospere said in an interview. "We've got to make sure that we've got adequate police force on the street and good quality of life in neighborhoods, cleaning the city and such as that. There are going to be some challenges. Much like the state, there have been some one-time monies put into the budget that will have to be made up, but there are also some opportunities with the COPS Grants for the police, and we'll be looking for some monies to help with the water/sewer needs of the city. But we're going to have to take another look at the detention center. It just gets back to working with the county government, Sheriff (Malcolm) McMillin and such as that."
Sheriff McMillin said Melton has yet to speak with him on the matter.
"I don't know what he plans to do. He hasn't discussed it with me, and I couldn't tell you what his intent is," said McMillin, who added that the city would have to weigh the benefits of building the facility against the expenses. "It depends on what it's going to cost you to build a 150-bed facility, and staff it, or do you want to spend that money with the county that's already in the jail business?"
The city had run its own holding facility, housed on the upper floors of the downtown police department, but had opted in the 1990s to ship inmates to the county jail and closed the city pen, which had been criticized as unsafe by some prisoners' rights attorneys. Welch had described the living conditions for detainees inside the facility as "deplorable."
"Let's just say it was clear that they had not given the design of the facility a lot of thought," Welch said, adding that inmates were not always in easy view of guards.
Mississippi Center for Justice attorney Sheila Bedi warned that there was more to fixing crime than temporarily locking away the criminals. "Our community is not going to become any safer by putting young people in and out of the revolving door that is the criminal justice system," said Bedi. "What happens to these children is that they go into the system. They'll be locked up. They'll be de-humanized, they'll be made more angry and then they'll be let out again. They'll almost always be let out again. Putting children in jail with no therapeutic services, giving them no alternative, doesn't do anything to make anybody safer. If the administration is serious about fighting juvenile crime and making our community safer, they'll prioritize investing in alternatives to prisons and jails."
Not Just Reacting?
Melton, who regularly works with juveniles and has adopted many disadvantaged youths as his own, says he has plans to tackle crime from a preventative standpoint as well. One endeavor is a program to teach city youth construction skills while allowing them to use those skills on some of the dilapidated or abandoned homes in the area.
"I plan to work with some of the youngsters in our community that live in specific neighborhoods like the Washington Addition," Melton said July 6. "We've got 84 abandoned houses over there. I'm using public works to supervise these young people. They'll have an opportunity to make some money, buy their school clothes legally, and do the right thing, and at the same time we're either going to refurbish or tear the houses down. I'm going to present a contract to the city council probably next week, to hire a few companies to go in."
Melton said he has opened lines with unions, particularly the United Association for Plumbers and Pipe-fitters Union, to organize an education effort with city youth.
David Newell is the field representative for the United Association for Plumbers and Pipefitters Union and president of the Building and Construction Trade Council. Newell said Melton and union representatives out of Washington have assembled plans and are now waiting for Newell to met with Melton again before setting them in motion.
The union uses a pension trust fund to invest in projects across the nation, which consequently nets a bigger return for pension holders than mediocre bank investing.
"We already have the vehicle in place," said Newell. "We have the training school that the plumbers and pipe fitters built in Pearl. We spent about $11 million on it, and Frank and some of us had talked about taking some of the young folks in the city and putting them in these training programs and helping them out, whether they want to be carpenters, electricians or plumbers, and then put them back to work in the city."
Newell said former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., had earlier rejected the same offer.
In his speech, Melton warned that to qualify for city jobs, kids must be in school with acceptable behavior, and must be in church on Sunday.
Lambright said she doubted the church requirement for city jobs was constitutional.
Closed for Business
Melton also vowed to work diligently to close down businesses that he considers a nuisance to the city, such as the Upper Level Bar & Groove nightclub, outside of which occurred recent gun injuries and one death.
"There are two things that I want to jump on right off the bat. One dealt with crime, and the other was to close down that Upper Level Night Club, and we got a temporary restraining order on that," said Melton, who sought a more permanent restraining order against the business on July 8. A Hinds County Chancery Court neutralized the hearing on the injunction. Owner Sandra Moore Johnson of Edwards agreed to hire two off-duty law officers to maintain security, expand the parking lot and other measures.
"If the standards aren't met, we will be right back here in court," Melton said. Club owners did not return calls to the JFP.
Lawrence Silver, assistant professor of Marketing at Mississippi College School of Business, said he was concerned by any legal business getting targeted by the government. "If I open a business and put my money and my time into it I should have a reasonable expectation that as long as my business is legal and meets all the codes I see no reason my business should operate. What I see here is I see him (Melton) closing down a business based on stuff they couldn't really control. If he has proof of drug sales inside the business then it should be their responsibility to stop that."
In his inaugural speech, Melton also vowed to clean up properties, saying the city would finance the mowing and upkeep and then send the bill to the owners, no matter how far out of town they live. Melton repeated the vow July 6.
"For the abandoned houses owned by people who don't live in Jackson, we're going to cut their grass and then send them the bill, and if they don't pay the bill, we take the property. We're going to start that next week," Melton repeated at a recent council meeting.
City Community Improvement Division Manager Herman Taylor says the city already uses that process, attaching the bill of city financed maintenance to the property in the form of a lien. The owner may duck the lien cost at tax-time, however, with the lien only really becoming a problem when the owner is looking to sell. Taylor says he has not received any updates from Melton's team in regard to property procedure, but says he will welcome Melton's input when he gets it.
Real estate attorney Matthew Poole says whether or not the city can snatch the property is ultimately in the hands of a judge.
"The city has the power to place a lien on someone's property, but they need an additional step in order to have the property taken," said Poole. "To have the property stricken of its title and the owner lose the property, they would have to go through normal eminent domain proceedings. The city on its own can't take it. They can file a tax lien and attempt a forcing of the tax lien, but it's a matter of the judge's discretion."
The city could own the property if someone had a significant enough lien or if the property is considered a health hazard, but even then the decision still, ultimately, comes down to the judge.
JPD Executive Support officer George Cricenti, who commonly handles property complaints, pointed out that the city would prefer not to take ownership of dilapidated property in the first place.
"The city really doesn't want to own the property. Once we own it, it's off our tax rolls. We'd much rather have nice-looking buildings with owners in them," Cricenti said.
I wonder how the salaries of the police chief and the cityís attorney fair in contrast to cities comparable to JacksonÖ.they both sound a bit fleecing!
- K RHODES
Hi, piker here. Anyone noticed we have not had a "Crime Report" since the beginning of July? I guess the vest and backwards hat worked - Zero Crime! Kind of new, so maybe I have missed something?