Friday, November 18, 2005
Frank Melton carried the May 2 mayoral primary in part because of a surly, take-no-prisoners attitude on crime. Melton used his 14-month tenure as head of the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics to forge a local image as a hard-nosed delivery system for justice, despite being involuntarily relieved of his MBN duties by incoming Gov. Haley Barbour due to low drug arrest numbers.
But like with other issues from infrastructure improvements to fixing flooding, water and sewer problems, Melton as a candidate and now as the mayor has offered many platitudes on how to fix the crime problemindeed, to clean up the city's crime in 90 days, as he promised.
This lack of specifics did not deter the almost one-third of registered voters who turned out to elect Melton, however. There was little timeor inclination among manyto insist on ironing out specifics or niggle over details, however. Melton was Jackson's newly elected crime fighter. And his big fish was to bring down the city's crime statistics.
Ride 'Em, Cowboy
Melton stuck to his taming-the-West image, handing out cowboy hats at his first City Council meeting, including to his new police chief choice, Shirlene Anderson, who followed Melton from MBN where she was his second in charge.
Days after taking office July 4and warning young thugs to vacate Jackson during his inaugural speechthe mayor shed the suit and tie, grabbed a badge from somewhere, threw on a black baseball cap (with "police" across the back, which he wears in the front), and attended police checkpoints and raids over the city, to the cheers of many, with his new chief and assistant chief (Roy Sandefer, also from MBN), mostly concentrating in West Jackson.
Whereas Mayor Harvey Johnson was accused of moving too slow, Melton was an explosive dynamo, ready to lob a finger into the bloated aorta of the city's criminal underbelly. It didn't seem to matter to many that "his" arrests often did not stick for various reasonsor, in some cases, no arrests were madewhat mattered was the "perception" that the new mayor was tougher on crime than the last one.
On the surface, that imagery looks like it's paying off. On Nov. 14, the homicide count in Jackson is reported to stand at 35, on track to be lower than last year, which tallied in at 52. Melton could claim responsibility for the drop in crimeif it weren't for crime figures for the first half of 2005 suggesting a pre-existing trend already in effect, and a dramatic drop in homicides for the first six months of the yearbefore Melton took office. There were 18 homicides in Jackson from January through June 2005, compared to 26 in 2004 for the same period, a 31 percent drop.
One month, in specific, indicates what was already happening on the crime front before Melton took office. As of March 2005, Jackson had suffered seven murders this year, compared to the nine murders in the same period in 2004a 22 percent drop. The numbers for that period's robbery fell 21 percent, with 141 robberies, compared to 2004's 178. Larceny-theft dropped 6 percent from 1,639 incidents to 1,529, and auto theft was dropping 6 percent from 480 incidents to 450, while assault fell 8 percent from 107 incidents to 98.
Jackson's crime ratewhich has dropped steadily for five years and 24 percent overall on former Chief Robert Moore's watchfollows a national trend recorded in 2004, with the murder rate dropping to its lowest level in 40 years, according to the FBI's annual compilation of crimes reported by police. In fact, rates for all seven major crimes were down in 2004, and the overall violent crime rate reached a 30-year low, with 391 fewer murders nationwide than the year before, a decline of 3.3 percent from 2003 and the lowest murder rate since 1965, when it was 5.1.
But those who prefer sensationalism often quote crime statistics far out of useful context. In recent reports, for instance, local media shifted from reporting actual crime percentage drops within the city to obsessing about national rankings that show Jackson as a high-crime rate city compared to other cities.
With crime dropping pretty much everywhere, low-population cities reaching low numbers of actual crimes will inevitably compare poorly to higher-population areas in such city-by-city rankings. Poorer cities will also fare poorly in comparison rankings, even if they show dramatic crime drops, as Jackson has over the last decade.
The fact is that crime was improving long before Melton came to office, though he and detractors of Mayor Johnson tried to obscure the fact. During his campaign, Melton even claimed that the favorable crime stats the JPD was reporting to the FBI were doctored numbers, but offered no proof of the claim and has revealed no investigation looking into the alleged fraud now that he is mayor. Melton's challenge now is both to continue the crime drop and deal with the types of crimes that can be difficult to prevent by grandstanding and public proclamations. Jackson has now reached the rolling-up-the-sleeves point where dealing with the roots of crime is vital in order to get crime down even further.
Booting Crime Specialists
Melton has been voracious in keeping up an image as a gun-toting do-gooder who will bring sweeping changes to the city's justice systemeven as he re-assigned JPD's public information officer and fired crime prevention specialists.
Police Chief Shirlene Anderson said the city has no intention of keeping the job position empty, however. "We're not going to close that job down," Anderson said. "We will be hiring another public information officer. We're just looking to find the right person." Meantime, Anderson is functioning as JPD's spokeswoman, and she has ceased holding the weekly press briefings that her predecessor started.
Raising many eyebrows and without City Council input, Melton dumped the department's Crime Prevention Unit on Oct. 1, booting eight crime prevention specialists off the city payrolls and saving about $275,000 in salaries. The eight employees learned of the job eliminations on the Tuesday before their jobs ended on Friday. The mayor told them their pay would extend only to Oct. 15.
"This is my decision, and it is final," Melton told council members and city residents who packed the council meeting that week to protest the firings.
Melton said a new Quality of Life Task Force, headed by city Constituent Services Director Goldia Revies, a former WLBT cohort of Melton, would "within days" do the jobs of the crime prevention specialists. The task force is comprised of individuals working inside city and local government agencies who will volunteer their services to the endeavorand is still in the planning stages nearly two months after that press conference.
Within a month of taking office, Melton also proclaimed that city judges should set bonds at a minimum of $500,000 "for anyone who uses a weapon to assault another human being."
A judge already has the power to issue a $500,000 bond at his discretion, however, according to recently appointed Municipal Court Deputy Director and former municipal judge Gail Wright Lowery. In any case, judges must be mindful of constitutional laws, such as the 8th Amendment, which protects individuals from excessive bail.
Penning Up the Bad Guys?
Melton is also working to speed up the city's municipal court system, in hopes of getting pre-trail detainees out of the county system by increasing the city's judge head count up from five. State legislators will have to approve the move, however. "We're putting together a legislative package to submit to legislators," said City Attorney Sarah O'Reilly-Evans at a recent council session.
Prisoner rights' attorney Ron Welch argued that it isn't the slow city system that's responsible for choking the county jail with pre-trial detainees in the first place.
"The problem isn't the municipal judges slowing things down. Most of the cases out at the (Hinds County) jail are waiting to be seen in the county court. On Oct. 25 there were 594 inmates at Raymond, of which 569 were pre-trial male felony inmates. That's 24-plus people out there who haven't even seen a circuit court judge yet. That's a judicial crisis that ought to be addressed," Welch said.
"What we have are judges who are accountable to the voters, and nobody's watching them or reporting on what the hell they're doing. The only time there's oversight is when the judges themselves commit criminal acts."
Melton promised to provide the city with another holding facility to keep the bad guys in. The plan appealed to voters looking to separate themselves from the criminal element, though the same voters seem unwilling to foot the bill to build such a facility. Melton himself opposed tax increases that might have paid for the jail, and recent talks with city and county officials regarding matters of the justice system are only in preliminary stages.
"We were trying to identify some problems and come up with a game plan," said Hinds County Under-sheriff Bill Gowan of a Nov. 10 meeting at City Hall. Melton ejected the Jackson Free Press and The Clarion-Ledger before the meeting started. When asked later if a game plan was born at the meeting, Gowan's reply was a stiff "no, sir," then refused further comment.
Council President Marshand Crisler said he had a more optimistic view of the meeting. "Members of both governments walked away with a sense of what each other's needs are," Crisler said. "We can certainly say that."
A Jihad on Sex Toys
In the meantime, Melton has tried to close down hotspots across the city that he interprets as incubators of crime.
Melton unsuccessfully moved to shut the Upper Level Club, which was close to numerous shootings. Lawyers defending the club and the club owner's agreement to meet city requirements kept the doors open. Melton also moved, with more success, to close an adult video and bookstore on Terry Road, where Melton told WLBT in a July 28 report that: "I came in with two detectives, and there were two men in a sex act."
City spokeswoman Carolyn Redd told the JFP later that no arrests were made on that date for public sex.
Melton's war on sex toys, however, has recently extended to the McDowell Road Video Adult Bookstore, where Melton led a raid last Monday and claimedagain to his former station, WLBTthat people had been caught in an inappropriate act.
Owner Charles Hobby told the Jackson Free Press that he will fight this closing, however, saying that he is acting within the law and city permit requirements. He said that Melton is characteristically dishonest, pointing to a recent civil suit where Melton lied in depositions.
"Melton confessed that he perjured himself at MBN and told a bald-faced lie, and then he did the same thing on TV the other night when he hit this place here. He said he caught two guys having indecent acts, or something like that, but we got film footage of everything Melton did. This store is under 100 percent surveillance, and we got tape of the time he walked in the store to the time he walked out. There was not even a customer in the store during the time he was here."
Hobby said several attorneys have offered to help him sue the city if it comes to it."If he returns our merchandise and drops the charges against me and agrees to leave me alone, we'll forget it, but if he doesn't, we're going with all guns blazing," he added.
South Jackson resident Levon Neely said anybody worried about crime can appreciate Melton's zeal, but said the mayor should channel some of his exuberance to what he calls a "booming drug industry."
"I go up Mill Street all the time, and over there by Farish Street, just one street over from where they're doing all that work, and you can see them: young people just selling drugs in the street. It doesn't matter if it's 10 in the morning or 9 at night. You see them handing things to each other on the sidewalk. We all know what they're doing," Neely said, going on to complain about a re-emergence of prostitution.
"You can always see them (prostitutes) walking Mill Street," Neely said. "You drive by, and they'll try to wave you down. I don't know these women, but they sure do try to talk to me, and I think I'm seeing it (prostitution) over on Capitol Street now.
So, why doesn't Melton just sign a contract with Shirlene Anderson like he did for Economic Development and Human and Cultural Services? If it's such a promising strategy for getting businesses to come to the city and for getting early childhood development up to snuff, why not reduce crime with a highly paid non-employee figurehead?
“Melton confessed that he perjured himself at MBN and told a bald-faced lie, and then he did the same thing on TV the other night when he hit this place here. He said he caught two guys having indecent acts, or something like that, but we got film footage of everything Melton did. This store is under 100 percent surveillance, and we got tape of the time he walked in the store to the time he walked out. There was not even a customer in the store during the time he was here.” Release the film.... Put it on Public Access!!!!!!!!!!! Let's see his "police" skills in action!