Tuesday, April 25th 2023, 8:02 PM EDT
By Omar Jimenez and Devon M. Sayers, CNN
A pair of new laws in Mississippi is leaving Jackson divided, with some hoping they will save a capital city wracked by a rise in homicides while others see an echo of a racist past.
As part of the laws, the state of Mississippi will expand its law enforcement reach over the entire city of Jackson and implement major changes to its judicial system.
Democratic elected officials in Jackson call the laws a "slap in the face of our city" and a regression toward the state's painful Civil Rights era past. On the other hand, those that pushed for the laws say it is a necessary public safety move for a city that has seen a sharp rise in homicides.
Jackson's homicides per year have doubled over the last decade, peaking in 2021, when the city's murder rate more than 12 times the national average, making Jackson one of the deadliest cities in the United States.
"The fact is that Jackson has so much potential. It is our capital city and the heart of our state," Gov. Tate Reeves said in a news release announcing his signing of the bills. "This legislation won't solve the entire problem, but if we can stop one shooting, if we can respond to one more 911 call -- then we're one step closer to a better Jackson."
There is no doubt help is needed in Mississippi's capital when it comes to public safety, but where that improvement comes from and what it looks like has been at the center of a bitter debate.
At the heart of the controversy is representation. Jackson is more than 80% Black and is a majority Democratic city. Mississippi's state legislature is mostly White and Republican -- and most representing districts outside of Jackson.
One of the laws will expand the state-controlled Capitol Police jurisdiction from its current boundaries around state buildings and nearby neighborhoods to the entire city, boosting officer numbers on the street amid an understaffed Jackson Police Department. However, the Capitol Police would not be under the direct control of local officials, but instead report primarily to state-appointed leadership.
The other law will impact the court systems and establish a new court within the boundaries of a state-created district known as the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID), centered around downtown, Jackson State University, and nearby neighborhoods and businesses. That judge will be appointed, not elected, by the Republican state chief justice with prosecuting attorneys appointed by the Republican state attorney general to help with low-level cases.
The state will also establish a new 911 call center to answer calls within the CCID.
For the surrounding Jackson area, the chief justice will also appoint four "temporary special circuit judges," along with adding staff to the public defender and district attorney's offices, meant to help to alleviate heavy caseloads.
While there have been instances of judges being appointed before, critics see this aspect as a slippery slope when it comes to representation.
CNN has reached out to the Mississippi Department of Public Safety about their planning for implementing the new laws but has not heard back.
A 'dark cloud' of crime
Now residents, local elected officials, and law enforcement in Jackson, which has the highest percentage of Black people of major US cities, are left to figure out how to make the new law work.
"We don't want the city to be taken over, but we're kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place," Felicia Brisco, who is Black and has owned a hair salon in the city for the last 20 years, told CNN.
The salon is located just within what will eventually become a new boundary for the capitol district in a small one-story brick building that it shares with a barbershop. A bench chained to the sidewalk sits next to the locked door where customers ring a doorbell to get inside.
"We have this dark cloud hovering over us with the crime in the city." Brisco said in between clients. "Beauty salons used to be open door where you could just walk in, but we just can't allow that anymore because you just don't know who may come in. So we keep our doors locked around here."
"I've had a client come in and say her husband left for work, got carjacked, and killed. I've had friends who've been carjacked," she added.
When it comes to policing, the city department will now have to find a way to work with a state agency that, up until a few years ago, was primarily a protective force for the capitol and its surrounding area -- not engaged in city law enforcement.
And Mississippi isn't the only state where local elected leaders are being challenged, or even overruled, by state legislators.
In Missouri, legislation is being passed to give control of the St. Louis Police Department to the state, and to appoint a special prosecutor ahead of any elected one, if the homicide rate gets high enough. In Georgia, a bill that passed the state house and senate would create a state commission that could investigate and even punish local elected prosecutors. The bill was sent to the republican Governor earlier this month.
Like Mississippi, in both states, Republicans run the legislature, Democrats run the cities, and both situations are in part tied to public safety.
"I've lived in Jackson for almost a third of my life and I want what's best for Jackson," said Gov. Reeves during a Wednesday news conference, before the bills became law. "But for us to continue to see young kids getting killed in the streets, for us to continue to see property crimes that are happening here that are causing businesses to leave. We've got to make sure that we have law and order."
'You cannot arrest that problem away'
"We don't have a crime problem," Jackson City Police Cpt. Christian Vance told CNN while on patrol in his police SUV.
"You look at carjackings, or you look at murders, or this and that you say 'Oh,that's a crime problem.' Nah, brother, that is a symptom of not valuing each other and not valuing themselves," he said.
The 15-year veteran of the force added: "You cannot arrest that problem away." Vance, who is Black, was born in California but moved to Jackson as a young man, later graduating from Jackson State University. The son of a preacher, and grandson of a freedom rider, he spoke with passion and a love for the city he calls home.
"Policing is relationships, and without relationships it's pointless," Vance said, driving past more than a few buildings that had seen better days. Some were boarded up, some with piles of garbage out front and some piles of rubble where buildings once stood.
Vance pulled over as a resident recognized and flagged him down. Laughing and smiling, the captain got out of his patrol car and spoke with the resident, who was inquiring about efforts to beautify the neighborhood.
They're the same streets Capitol Police will now help patrol, but Vance said the key to any collaboration will be going beyond that.
"Community fights crime," Vance said. "You have to go out of your way to know these people, and gain their trust, and have a relationship with them because policing without a relationship is occupation," he added.
"This is my place. This is my place. And I will live and die for this place," Vance said as he recalled the struggle of those before him, invoking the name of Jacksonian Civil Rights icon Medgar Evers, who investigated the lynching of Emmett Till and was assassinated by a member of the Ku Klux Klan in 1963. The city's international airport is named after Evers.
Gov. Reeves was quick to point out "smooth implementation is never easy," before these bills became law, and that he does not expect this case to be any different. "Part of my responsibility is to manage expectations," he said.
Mayor worries about more risk with less accountability
The city's mayor feels that the new law is an assault on Black leadership.
The law "says we don't value your voice," Chokwe Antar Lumumba told CNN. "I think that it says, 'You're a population that is meant to be controlled, as opposed to being supported.' I think this is a message that says that we don't believe that Black leadership is capable of moving forward for itself."
Lumumba, the son of a Jackson mayor and community activist, is the youngest mayor in Jackson's history. He gained national attention as the city's years long struggle with its water system hit crisis levels last year.
"We're acting as if we are a carpenter with one tool, a hammer, and so everything looks like a nail," Lumumba said about the focus on law enforcement to address the issues in the city.
He acknowledges the rise in crime in his central Mississippi city but attributed it to a number of factors including lack of economic opportunity, easy access to weapons and difficulties in access to health care.
"Someone that lives in north Mississippi is no more concerned about public safety than people that live here each and every day. We are most concerned, and we know what our community looks like and we know what the challenges are and how they exist," the mayor said.
Lumumba was also worried that the Capitol Police's added responsibility over parts of his city will put his citizens at more risk with less local accountability.
There have been "nearly seven officer involved incidents to include the death of Jaylen Lewis," the mayor said.
Capitol Police officers fatally shot 25-year-old Lewis last year. In a heavily redacted incident report obtained by CNN through a public records request, officers reported that before the shooting, they saw Lewis run a red light and tried to conduct a traffic stop.
Lewis' case has served as a rallying cry against the law, with his grieving mother testifying before a legislative committee against the expansion of Capitol Police jurisdiction.
"It'll make me scared for my safety in Jackson," she said during a hearing last month. The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, also a state agency, is still investigating the September 2022 incident.
"In any moment where you find yourself in a crisis or an area of concern, what you don't want to do is reach for a solution that places you in a worse position than you already find yourself in," the mayor said, who implied the fight over this law may not end with the governor's signature.
"We will use every tool in the shed in order to make certain the best interests of our residents are represented," the mayor added.
On Friday, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit to challenge the law.
"Black Jacksonians need real investment in their infrastructure and complete control over the future of their city. The NAACP will do whatever it takes to protect Jackson residents from the elected officials that continue to fail them," NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson said in a statement.
The laws are set to go into effect on July 1.
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