JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Tensions erupted Friday as the majority-white and Republican-controlled Mississippi House passed the final version of a bill to expand the territory of a state-run police department inside the capital city of Jackson, which is majority-Black and governed by Democrats.
Supporters say the proposal is intended to increase safety in the city of nearly 150,000 residents, which has had more than 100 homicides each of the past three years.
Opponents say the plan, which also would create a new court with an appointed judge, would stomp on local governance and create unequal systems of justice. About 83% of Jackson residents are Black — the largest percentage of Black residents of any major U.S. city.
Officers from the state-run Capitol Police have been patrolling around state government buildings in and near downtown, while the Jackson Police Department patrols the entire city. Critics say Capitol Police are aggressive and expanding the territory could endanger lives.
During the House debate Friday, Democratic Rep. Zakiya Summers said many Black parents already talk to their children about being careful around police. She said her biggest fear is that her three sons — Marvin, Mason and Mathis — will be treated with hostility.
“While they’re traveling around the city of Jackson and they get pulled over, they’re going to have to keep their hands on 10 and 2. They’re not going to be able to say a doggone thing to that police officer,” Summers said. “The only thing that they’re going to have to do is pray and hope that they can make it back home safely.”
Since the bill was filed in January, critics have compared the proposal to past efforts to suppress Black people’s rights in Mississippi.
“Mississippi has always been first in racism,” Democratic Rep. Solomon Osborne of Greenwood said Friday.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Trey Lamar, who is white, has said repeatedly that race is not a factor in his proposal. He said he’s trying to help Jackson become more welcoming for residents and visitors.
“You talk about being offended. I’m offended, as well,” Lamar said Friday after listening to several lawmakers denounce the bill. “If I have to stand here and listen to being called a racist because I’m trying to do the right thing, we’re going to talk about the color that matters — and that’s the red that flows in my veins and yours alike.”
The bill passed the majority-white and Republican-controlled House on a 72-41 vote. The support came from Republicans and two independents. The opposition came from Democrats and three Republicans.
Senators had passed the final version of the bill on Thursday, with 31 Republicans voting yes and 15 Democrats voting no.
Republican Gov. Tate Reeves has not said whether he will sign the measure into law, but he has often said Jackson has a crime problem.
The proposal for state control has angered Jackson residents who don’t want their voices diminished in local government, and it is the latest example of the long-running tensions between the Republican-run state government and the Democratic-run capital city.
The plan would create a temporary court within a Capitol Complex Improvement District inside a portion of Jackson. The judge would not be required to live in Jackson and would be appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice. The current chief justice is a conservative white man. The court would have the same power as municipal courts, which handle misdemeanor cases, traffic violations and initial appearances for some criminal charges.
Most municipal judges are appointed by city officials. Jackson has a Black mayor and majority-Black city council. An earlier version of the bill would have created a court with broader powers similar to courts with elected judges.
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