Wednesday, November 29, 2006
Jackson Mayor Frank Melton says he's more than doubling the city's seven-member gun-interdiction team because of the team's success since April. Officers will be moved from within the city's current force, which is down to 440 officers, far under the 1999 Linder-Maple recommendations for Jackson.
"This is an island of strength," Melton said. "They've been well-trained by the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms), and they've been out on the streets now for six months. During that time period, they've made a dramatic difference here in the city."
The federal government funds and trains the gun-interdiction officers. The program is part of the federal Operation Safe Neighborhood program, associated with Weed and Seed programs begun under Mayor Kane Ditto and expanded under Mayor Harvey Johnson's administration.
The officers focus on gun crimes, often adding charges against suspects who commit other crimes. A felon charged with the shooting death of his co-worker will also face the federal charge of being a felon with a firearm.
"Gun crimes almost exclusively deal with persons who have been convicted of a felony, who are prohibited by state and federal law from having a gun in their possession," U.S. Attorney Dunn Lampton told the JFP, explaining that somebody pulled over at the interdiction team's checkpoint could have just enough marijuana to count as a misdemeanor but still suffer a hit from a federal offense by having a gun in his car if he is already a felon.
The team's focus on guns doesn't prevent them from busting violators for lesser crimes. So far, the team has made 174 misdemeanor arrests and 114 felony arrests in Jackson since April. They also gathered 95 weapons, issued 516 citations and recovered more than $46,000 in cash. Of the arrests made, 56 were of felons with guns.
Police can hold suspects in the federal jail in Madison County, and if the suspect is convicted, he is sent to a federal penitentiary, with a sentence of no less than 10 years for gun possession alone. Felons who carry guns cannot post bail when facing federal charges.
Hinds County District Attorney Faye Peterson said the possibility of federal charges often convinces a suspect to plead guilty to state charges, rather than risk stiffer penalties. Peterson did not attend the press conference, but supports the project.
Asst. Police Chief Dwayne Thomas explained that team members do not respond to 911 calls and can, therefore, focus on weapons offenses through plainclothes detective work, checkpoint monitoring and other methods.
"These guys dedicate their time to just going out and working areas that need special attention, and looking for the little telltale signs that give away these guys who've got the guns. If you don't have to answer calls or service, and you're out there looking for the right things, and you're looking for them all the time, then you're going to be effective," Thomas said.
NRA instructor Cliff Cargill said he supports the work of the gun interdiction team, so long as they follow the rule of law. "They do good work so long as they're focused on getting firearms out of the hands of felons … and it doesn't infringe upon the rights of law-abiding citizens," Cargill said.
Lampton said his office has pledged $120,000 per year to fund the program for three years and added that his office still had thousands of dollars to help expand the program. "The idea is that a high percentage of convicted felons commit additional crimes. If you can catch them with guns before they commit those crimes, you can head it off. Take the guns out of their hands, and you'll reduce crime," Lampton said.
Lampton said citizens will be more prone to report incidents of crime as a result of the team's arrest rate. He said the rise in police calls could cause an initial hike in the city's ComStat numbers. "Some people do not report crime. They'll say, 'Nothing's going to be done, I'm not going to report it.' When their confidence level goes up, they will start reporting crimes that they might otherwise have not reported," he said.
Some citizens complain that reluctance to grab a phone is hardly a factor, saying that many calls to the city's 911 number get a slow response or sometimes no response at all.
"We'll call the police, and sometimes the people who answer the phone either don't report the incident to the patrol vehicles, or the police are not responding. I don't know which," said Battlefield Community Association President Daisy Davis. "But I can tell you: We (city residents) are making these calls. We're trying to do our part."
Some residents question JPD's priorities in reassigning the officers. "If we were going to increase the police presence, I'd probably start at the 911 call center and on the patrol people," said Jackson resident Jan Russell. "It just takes too long to get a response sometimes."
Earlier this month, robbers walked off with furs from the Maison Weiss store at Highland Village. Employees there say they made repeated attempts to reach the police during the theft. "People in our store were trying to call for 10 minutes, and we have numerous phones in the store," said store manager Ken Szilasi. The store, however, has been covered by "a constant police presence since" the robbery, he added.