Mississippi approves more state policing for Jackson

Published 6:15 am Saturday, April 22, 2023

Mississippi’s Republican governor signed a bill on Friday to expand the territory of a state-run police department inside the majority-Black capital city of Jackson, and the new law is expected to face a court challenge from the NAACP.

The legislation was passed by a majority-white and Republican-controlled state House and Senate. Jackson is governed by Democrats and about 83% of residents are Black, the largest percentage of any major U.S. city.

NAACP national president Derrick Johnson, who lives in Jackson, said the law would treat Black people as “second-class citizens” by stomping on rights of local self-government. He said at a community meeting on April 6 in Jackson that the NAACP intends to sue the state.

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“They’re only imposing this on the city of Jackson,” Johnson said. “No other jurisdiction in the state of Mississippi will have this type of oversight and taking of local authority. That is a direct violation of equal protection.”

Gov. Tate Reeves said this week that the Jackson Police Department is severely understaffed, and he believes the state-run Capitol Police can provide stability. The city has nearly 150,000 residents and has had more than 100 homicides in each of the past three years.

“We have a crippling problem with violent crime in our capital city,” Reeves said in a statement Friday. “We’re working to address it. And when we do, we’re met with overwhelming false cries of racism and mainstream media who falsely call our actions ‘Jim Crow.’”

Capitol Police officers have been patrolling around state government buildings in and near downtown, and the Jackson Police Department patrols the entire city. Critics say Capitol Police are aggressive, and expanding the territory could endanger lives.

Debate in the past four months over a larger state role in Jackson has angered residents who don’t want their voices diminished in local government. It’s the latest example of the long-running tensions between the state government and the capital city.

Jackson officials say the state has ignored many of its requests for money to repair the city’s water system. Tens of thousands of people were left without running water last year after a near-collapse of the system that is now under control of a federally-appointed manager.

In 2022, Reeves vetoed several spending proposals for other projects inside Jackson, including $1 million for parking at the city’s convention center and $2 million to renovate a planetarium.

The law that Reeves signed Friday will create a temporary court within a Capitol Complex Improvement District inside a portion of Jackson. The court will have the same power as municipal courts, which handle misdemeanor cases, traffic violations and initial appearances for some criminal charges.

Most municipal judges are appointed by city officials. Jackson has a Black mayor and majority-Black city council. The judge of the new court is not required to live in Jackson and will be appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice. The current chief justice is a conservative white man.

“Jacksonians want a safer city more than anyone, but this is not what real public safety looks like,” Jarvis Dortch, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi, said in a statement Friday.

“If our state lawmakers really wanted to help fight crime,” he said, “they would invest more tax dollars into mental health and anti-poverty programs to better support all of our communities, not finding new ways to oppress and overpower the Black residents of this state.”