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As state-run police expand into Jackson, some welcome the help. Others see racism

Martin Kaste/NPR
Jackson Police Department Capt. Julian Lonie and Officer Courtney Williams respond to a call about a man found "laid out" on a street. Officers called an ambulance for the man.

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Mississippi's Capitol Police Department, created to protect state buildings, has become Jackson's de facto second police department.

During the past year, Capitol Police has doubled in size to almost 120 officers and expanded its reach into an 8.7-square-mile zone of Jackson called the "Capitol Complex Improvement Zone." This is where the former capitol security force now sets up traffic checkpoints, combats street crime and even investigates homicides.

Jackson, however, still has its city-run police force, the Jackson Police Department.

The expansion of Capitol Police is the response of the Republican, majority-white state legislature to Jackson's stubborn crime problem. The homicide rate in the city, which is predominantly African American, was about 14 times the national rate in 2021, and the under-staffed Jackson Police Department has struggled to keep up with 30 thousand calls for service per month, according to the department.

"We're here as a force multiplier," says Capitol Police Chief Bo Luckey, who invites residents of the capitol zone to call his department directly, to take some of the burden off of JPD.

Some city leaders are skeptical about the help from the Capitol Police

But some city leaders are skeptical about the help.

Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba points to the fact that the zone getting the extra police has more white residents than the rest of the city, and he's likened the state's approach to "apartheid."

"It's a structure where those in the minority — certainly what would be the minority in the city of Jackson — have a great deal of control over the liberties, the policing, the militarized police force that would be imposed over this district," Lumumba told NPR in February.

City leaders were especially outraged last month when the Republican-controlled Mississippi House passed a bill to expand the jurisdiction of Capitol Police into even more of the city, as well as create a new court system with unelected judges, to increase prosecution capacity inside the capitol district.

The state senate has passed a version of this legislation without the new judicial district, which was the most controversial element of the plan. But both chambers still appear interested in expanding Capitol Police even farther. Some legislators have proposed tripling the size of its jurisdiction; others say Capitol Police should patrol all of Jackson, in concert with JPD.

Danyelle Holmes, an organizer with the Mississippi Poor People's Campaign, sees the state's approach as condescending.

"This is a thing of, 'Black folks can't govern. Black leaders can't govern. So we'll show you how to run, how to move, how to talk,'" she says, adding that she thinks the Capitol Police are more aggressive than the city's officers.

"I feel like it's militarized, right? Over-policed, enslaved — militia," she says.

As Capitol Police ramped up last year, officers were involved in a spate of shootings — including the fatal shooting of a 25-year-old man during a traffic stop in September.

There's also a sense that Capitol Police are less accountable to Jackson residents. The Jackson Police Department is under strict city restrictions for when officers are allowed to risk a car chase but the rules for Capitol Police are set by the state. There's also a mystery: When NPR asked the state for its vehicular pursuit policy, the document provided was redacted.

Capitol Police chief says they're not trying to "take over" Jackson

"The people that they're going to be policing have no say-so; don't elect them, don't elect the person that appoints the police chief," says Rep. Robert Johnson III, leader of the minority Democrats in the state House. "And I just think that's too much of a departure from the way policing should happen."

Chief Luckey says his department has already developed such a good reputation among business owners and residents of the capitol district, that people outside his patrol zone wish they could call his officers. He credits what he calls a "proactive" approach to policing, and says his officers have already written more than 3,000 traffic citations since Sept. 1., 2022 — a significant boost to overall citations in the city.

Luckey says he has heard from some residents and business owners outside the capitol district have asked if they could call Capitol Police for help. But he says the department is not trying to "take over" the city of Jackson, and he's been going to meetings with community leaders to try to reassure them.

One of them is Hosea Hines, pastor of Christ Tabernacle Church, who says the city's crime problem demands more policing — even if it's by a state-run agency.

"It's just unthinkable, the kinds of things people really have to do right now," he says, and cites a fear of car-jackings among members of his congregation. "It's not a good feeling for them to have to take care to select which gas station they can stop at."

The expansion of Capitol Police a "very unique situation"

Even though Capitol Police officers don't patrol South Jackson, where his church is, Hines hopes the extra help in the center of the city will allow the Jackson Police Department to send more officers to his neighborhood.

But so far, that's not happening.

"I think that that was the initial intention," says Jackson Police Department Assistant Chief of Police Joseph Wade, but "that has not yet been worked out yet."

Calling the expansion of Capitol Police a "very unique situation," he says the two departments are still trying to figure out how to cooperate — and the expansion of Capitol Police in the heart of the city has not yet freed up JPD officers for other areas.

"We have not pulled out of those areas," Wade says. "They're still patrolling that area along with Capitol Police, so they're really almost getting double coverage."

Jeff Good, a prominent businessman who co-owns three restaurants in Jackson, thinks state leaders may have become more high-handed about policing after watching the city struggle with its failing water system.

"The state came in and fixed it," he says of the water system. "I could see how a legislator would say, 'Well that worked pretty well, so maybe we should go ahead and do the same thing with public safety!' "

While he gets why they'd think that, he calls the approach of outside legislators "ham-handed," because it fails to appreciate the city's long-term challenges.

"Just as we have seen a degradation in the system that delivers clean water," Good says, "we have seen a degradation in the delivery of public safety in the city of Jackson." He blames decades of attrition at JPD, as well as declining tax revenues as residents and businesses moved to the suburbs.

Ultimately, the tensions over the expanding Capitol Police appear to be most intense inside the Capitol itself.

Out patrolling the city, Jackson Police Department Capt. Julian Lonie is more focused on the distressed neighborhoods where he grew up, now plagued by car jackings, robberies and shootings.

"There's nothing like having the extra help," he says of the expanded Capitol Police. "Every bit helps. As long as you're doing it the right way, not violating civil rights? I'm all for it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.