National ACLU accuses mayor of racial profiling

Published 4:14 pm Wednesday, August 2, 2006

The national American Civil Liberties Union on Tuesday accused Mayor Frank Melton of racial profiling — the latest criticism of the black city leader who is on an unorthodox crusade to stem crime in Mississippi’s capital city.

The ACLU, during a news conference outside City Hall, said it also was investigating alleged civil rights violations committed by Melton and law enforcement officers.

King Downing, the ACLU’s national racial profiling coordinator, said the allegations are based on complaints of people being pulled over on the basis of their race and searched without probable cause.

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“For me to leave my office and come into one of the states means that there is a very serious problem,” said Downing, who is based in New York. “There are problems here that it’s going to take the attention of the nation in order to solve.”

Downing said the mayor’s race should make him “more sensitive to the problems this is creating.”

Melton, in a separate interview, said he wasn’t interested in the ACLU’s complaints against him or the police and denied he had violated anyone’s civil rights.

“We have 26 people that have been killed in Jackson this year. We have 300,000 people killed across America each year. The majority of them are African American and it’s time to do something different,” Melton said. “I want to know what the ACLU wants to do besides criticize. Besides that, the hell with them.”

Last month, Melton declared a state of emergency to attack the city’s escalating crime problem, basically adopting a stricter curfew for teenagers and the homeless. The mayor also continued his practice of riding shotgun with police officers on patrol or at roadblocks.

Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the Mississippi ACLU, said the organization has received five formal complaints involving situations where police have detained people in Jackson without charging them or stopped and searched vehicles without probable cause.

Lambright accused law enforcement officers of racial profiling in poorer communities by either targeting black youths or maintaining a heavy police presence.

The city’s population of 184,256 is nearly 71 percent black. The population living below the poverty level is 23.5 percent.

“A lot of people want to keep these situations private and they’re fearful of retaliation,” Lambright said.

The ACLU has scheduled a series of meetings in Jackson to inform residents of their rights if they’re stopped by police — an idea frowned upon by Melton.

“I hope they don’t obstruct justice and give people false information because if they do, then we’ll be focusing on them and we’ll come after them,” Melton said.

The organization also has renewed its push for a state law that bans racial profiling, an issue that usually hits a brick wall in the Mississippi Legislature.

Melton took office last July after getting elected with 88 percent of the vote on a tough-on-crime platform.

Since then, federal authorities have told him to quit packing his pistol on commercial airline flights, 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.

“I can assure you of this, I certainly have made mistakes, but I have never violated anyone’s civil rights,” Melton said Tuesday.