Mayor's tough tack on crime stirs up racial sensitivities
Wielding a badge of dubious origin and a loaded gun, mayoral candidate Frank Melton vowed to clean up crime in Jackson, Miss., with a slick slogan: "Help is on the way!"
So when the mayoral candidate won, he took an unusual step of assisting police with drug stops or standing by at roadblocks.
Mr. Melton's even engaged in racial profiling, critics say. The American Civil Liberties Union cites complaints that people have been pulled over based on their race and searched without cause. The twist: Melton is black.
"The mayor as a black man clearly does not fit the profile of a racial profiler, but what's even more confusing is that he's not a law enforcement officer – and we usually don't think of racial profiling being done by someone outside the law enforcement community," says Richard Forgette, a political science professor at the University of Mississippi.
Gun shots, murders, and robberies have become common in Jackson, a city of 184,000 residents, 70 percent of whom are black. The key reason why Melton beat his opponent with 88 percent of the vote last summer was because he campaigned on cutting the crime rate.
In the first six months of 2006, crime has increased by 26 percent, prompting the mayor to institute a state of emergency in June. He's implemented a strict curfew for teenagers and homeless people.
Melton does have a softer side. He's known to take young charges in to mentor them, and pull city school buses over on the interstate so he can hug the children inside.
Melton says he is a deputized volunteer sheriff, although neither Mississippi nor Texas has a record of his certification. His habit of wearing a sidearm on airplanes has alarmed federal air-control officials.
Critics of Melton's tough tactics say they are an illegal attempt to appease whites in a city that has lost many of its middle-class residents who have given up hope of a resurgence, experts say.
"He's got a lot of Rudy Giuliani qualities in that there's a lot of lip going along with the action," says Sid Salter, a political columnist for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "He has succeeded in the Deep South in a town that has had its difficulties by bringing people together, by communicating with blacks and whites, but ... crime and urban blight and poverty are far more complex issues than Frank deals with in his world. He's like a kid playing cowboy."
Melton says he is fulfilling a campaign promise. In local newspapers, some letters to the editor question Melton's John Wayne tactics while others applaud his crackdown.
His actions have ignited a debate about how much crime there is in the city. After all, like most cities, Salter says, some neighborhoods are safer than others.
The ACLU says Melton's tactics have gone too far. On Tuesday, the group appeared in town to decry those they say are racial profiling.
Melton is failing in his responsibility to protect communities from crime while upholding the dignity and civil rights of alleged perpetrators, Redditt Hudson, an ACLU racial justice manager, told the Associated Press.
The mayor's race "should make him more sensitive to the problems this is creating," King Downing, the ACLU's national racial-profiling coordinator, told the AP.
The mayor fired back: "I want to know what the ACLU wants to do besides criticize," he said.
Generally, racial profiling nationwide has been on the downswing since police forces have come under scrutiny.
The US Supreme Court ruled against racial profiling in 1986. The controversy surfaced again and came to a head in New Jersey in 1999. The New Jersey State Police admitted to having a policy of racial profiling on the New Jersey Turnpike.
The US District Court for New Jersey ordered that it be stopped, an action that has reverberated through police departments across the country ever since, according to Jesse Lee of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE).
Because "racial profiling is a state of mind, ... it's hard to know exactly what's going on," says Steven Wolfson, a Dallas lawyer who specializes in racial profiling cases. "Blacks can certainly profile other blacks," says he says.
NOBLE usually hears about major profiling issues in American cities. But it's not aware of any accusations from Jackson, says Mr. Lee. "What can happen is that when you introduce new anticrime enforcement without proper education or buy-in of the community, there may be suspicion of racial profiling even when there's no racial profiling going on," says Mr. Lee.
It's more difficult to prove racial profiling charges when the same race is involved, Mr. Wolfson says.
"It's a fact that a white mayor would probably be more inhibited about cracking down on black crime than a black mayor cracking down on black crime," he says.