Mississippi lawmakers voted this week to give more power to a state police agency that has come under criticism for shooting four people in the city of Jackson since last summer.
The expansion of the Mississippi Capitol Police to patrol all of Jackson was a centerpiece of efforts by mostly white Republican state officials to exert more control over law enforcement in the majority-Black, Democrat-led capital.
The measure was approved by the state Senate on Thursday and the state House of Representatives on Friday over objections from Jackson lawmakers and now goes to Gov. Tate Reeves, a Republican. A second, related measure that also passed this week creates a temporary court system outside of city control — with judges appointed by the state Supreme Court chief justice and prosecutors appointed by the state attorney general — that would handle low-level cases in a portion of the city known as the Capitol Complex Improvement District.
“I believe it’s the right thing to provide protection from criminal activity and help the city of Jackson and it is my hope and prayer that this bill will assist,” said state Rep. Trey Lamar, a Republican who represents a northern Mississippi district and an author of the bill that creates the new court.
State Sen. John Horhn, a Black Democrat from Jackson who has expressed support for the Capitol Police, said he agrees with the need to address the city’s crime problem. “But the way this looks says something else,” he told his colleagues on Thursday. “And it plays right into the old stereotypical notions the rest of the country has about Mississippi.”
Reeves’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The bills’ proponents said they were trying to help Jackson deal with record spikes in killings and an overburdened court system. Some residents have welcomed the Capitol Police since it began patrolling parts of Jackson beyond state buildings last summer, saying the city needs more police officers because the Jackson Police Department has been understaffed.
But the four shootings, including one in which a father of two was killed and one in which a mother was injured while lying in bed, have drawn criticism of the Capitol Police for a lack of transparency. The agency works beyond the oversight of city officials and has policies on use of force and car chases that have not been updated since 2006. The Capitol Police has said little to explain the shootings, which remain under investigation by the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation. The department has said it would update its policies governing force and chases soon.
One of the bills that passed this week says that the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the Capitol Police, would have primary jurisdiction in the Capitol Complex Improvement District, an 8.7-square-mile area of Jackson that includes government buildings downtown as well as outlying neighborhoods. The Capitol Police began patrolling the district last summer. But under the bill, the Capitol Police would also be able to patrol and make arrests in any part of the city.
The other bill that passed this week focused on the new temporary court to handle crimes committed in the Capitol Complex Improvement District. The bill would expand the district to the north and the south in July 2024, and the court would end operations in 2027. The bill does not concentrate on the Capitol Police but says the agency’s officers must be given body cameras.
Mississippi Capitol Police’s expanding role in Jackson
- Last summer, Mississippi Capitol Police launched a street-crime unit to police parts of Jackson far beyond government buildings.
- The agency has an unusual level of authority for a state capitol police force, and it has faced criticism for aggressive patrols in the majority-Black city.
- In December, a Capitol Police car chase ended with an innocent 49-year-old woman shot in the arm while lying in bed. Surveillance video appears to show the moment an officer opened fire.
The state Senate and House spent hours debating the bills this week, with the authors — Republicans who live outside of Jackson — defending the measures against attacks by Democratic lawmakers from Jackson, who said the sponsors were telling the city how to fix its problems without asking for local officials’ input. The critics called this racist.
“This police force has no accountability to the city of Jackson,” Rep. Edward Blackmon Jr., a Democrat from Madison County, just north of Jackson, said of the Capitol Police on Friday. “This doesn’t exist anywhere else in the state of Mississippi. It is about race because we are the only race that is subjected to this kind of process.”
Rep. Nick Bain, a Republican from Alcorn County, more than 200 miles from Jackson, and an author of the bill expanding the Capitol Police’s jurisdiction, said Friday he could not heal the wounds of racism but said he is trying to bring help to Jackson residents who feel unsafe.
“That’s all we’re trying to do is to have a greater presence, a greater force, to protect the capital city that I love, that we all love,” Bain said.
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The Mississippi Department of Public Safety also did not immediately comment.
Bracey Harris contributed.