After state of emergency, many question get-tough tactics of Jackson, Miss., mayor

Published 5:58 pm Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Mayor Frank Melton promised a hands-on approach to this city’s chronic crime problem, and he made good from the moment he took office, donning a bulletproof vest and black fatigues and leading nightly police patrols that illuminated the streets with flashing blue lights.

The pistol-packing mayor soon ran up against the harsh reality that crime actually increased 26 percent during the first half of 2006. Melton responded with another get-tough gesture: imposing a monthlong state of emergency across the city.

“There comes a time when you just have to stand up,” Melton said during a recent patrol, with his Rottweiler mix, Abby, by his side.

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Some prosecutors and others say he is going way too far and perhaps breaking the law himself.

His state of emergency, which ended this week, tightened an earlier curfew on young people and was later expanded to include the homeless. At least 19 homeless people were taken to a city-run gymnasium after 10 p.m., and at least eight of them were given jobs picking up trash in the city.

Michael Stoops, acting executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, said Melton is the first mayor in the country to put a curfew on the homeless. Stoops said his organization is considering legal action to keep other cities from following suit.

“For a liberal Democratic African American mayor to consider homeless people as vagrants is a way to defame an entire group of people,” Stoops said.

Some prosecutors have objected to Melton’s practice of putting on police gear and picking up a shotgun, and his habit of taking crime witnesses into his home in a sort of self-styled witness protection program. Some business leaders say the state of emergency is hurting the city’s image.

“We do support the mayor in what he’s trying to do. Crime is a major problem,” said MetroJackson Chamber of Commerce Chairman Eddie Maloney. “The only problem we have is the state of emergency tag. It gives a negative context to the city.”

Melton said he knows his tactics are not popular with everyone, but he sees his approach as the only salvation from a crime rate that is nearly twice the national average, and which he believes is driving investment away from his city of 180,000.

Police Cmdr. Tyrone Lewis, a city spokesman, said there was a decrease in crime during the state of emergency, but he provided no statistics. Melton has said he hopes to work with city leaders to pass even stronger ordinances on crime.

Marty Wiseman, director of Mississippi State University’s Stennis Institute of Government, said it is too early to tell how Melton’s unorthodox approach will play out.

“I’d hate to tally all of the times the constitution has been played loose and fast with, but maybe we need to experiment a little,” Wiseman said. “At the end of four years, we will have tried the nice way and we will have tried the Wild West way.”

The 57-year-old former TV executive and director of the state’s narcotics agency established himself as a crime fighter with his tough-talking approach on the “Bottom Line,” an opinion piece that aired on WLBT, the NBC affiliate he ran. He would name suspected criminals on the air, and had their pictures posted on billboards.

Melton took office last July after getting elected with 88 percent of the vote on a tough-on-crime platform. But he has since run into trouble.

He brought in a new police chief and later tried to fire most of the city’s department heads. He later found out the mayor does not have the power to do either thing without going through certain procedures.

Federal authorities have told the mayor to quit packing his pistol on commercial airline flights. The mayor has said he receives almost daily threats and needs protection at all times.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood told him to stop wearing police gear, and Faye Peterson, the district attorney in Jackson, has said he is breaking the law by impersonating a police officer.

“The kids are out running wild in Jackson,” said 23-year-old Corey Johnson, a lifelong Jackson resident, said in Melton’s defense. “The youth need somebody in the city to give them some direction because the parents just don’t do it.”

Gilert Baker, 61, a former Washington, D.C., police officer, applauded Melton’s intentions.

“But I definitely think he needs to tone it down a little,” Baker said. “He’s got to let the chief of police do her job, then back her 100 percent. He needs to let the police be the police and he needs to be the mayor.”