After last week’s peaceful protest march across the State Street bridge in downtown McComb, speakers promised many things to participants.
We will be agents of change, they said. We will be part of the solution. We will do what is right, not what is politically correct. And so on.
It sounded good, and there is clearly a greater awareness in the country today of some of the problems faced by black people and other minorities.
But I would like to know more specifics. What kind of change? What solutions?
So I asked Mayor Quordiniah Lockley and Selectman Devante Johnson for details.
I’m more interested in concrete policy ideas rather than symbolic actions like changing the state flag. Personally, I think Mississippi needs a new flag, but that would have a limited impact, at best, in making life better and fairer. What can be done that would have a greater effect?
Johnson pointed out that the city has already made some moves to promote fairer treatment of all people.
Last week, the mayor, two selectmen and new police chief Garland Ward seemed to be in agreement that aggressive police tactics like chokeholds would be forbidden.
And Johnson, in an interview Friday, said the city has eliminated the requirement for cash bonds to be posted after a misdemeanor arrest. This means fewer people will be jailed for a minor offenses.
Johnson disagreed about the state flag; he thinks changing it would be much more than symbolic.
Another issue for him at the state level is education. He said the Department of Education’s continual changes to its accountability structure is unfair to districts like McComb, which has a D rating.
Both Johnson and the mayor spoke favorably of the McComb Police Department.
“I think overall we have a good police force,” Johnson said. But both he and Lockley believe that too many people in McComb, especially black residents, do not trust police.
“There is a disconnect when it comes to our police department and the community,” Lockley said. “Many years ago we tried Neighborhood Watch, where we could create a relationship, but it faded away.
“When we get to what is called community policing, you begin to break down that wall. I have been advocating that ever since I was city administrator. I advocated them getting out of their cars, getting out in the neighborhoods, where the community would view them not just as policemen but as human beings.”
The mayor has an excellent point, because one of the big complaints in the recent protests across the nation is that police tend to treat minorities more harshly — as less than human, if you will.
It’s easy to see how people who only have negative interactions with police officers would question their humanity, too. So if we’re going to change something, this will be an excellent place to start.
In my assessment, McComb has three significant problems today:
• No. 3 is the condition of the streets. There’s been some paving in recent years, so things have improved.
• No. 1 (listing it out of order) is the number of vacant homes all over town that have fallen in on overgrown lots.
• No. 2 is the perception (or maybe the reality) that the city has far too many property crimes for a town its size. This is where something like community policing could make a big difference.
“We can’t solve the break-ins, we can’t solve the robberies because people don’t feel comfortable talking to the police department,” Lockley said. “We have a list of crimes that are not solved, and there are those who actually saw something and could share information, but they’re reluctant to.”
Lockley said the former police chief, Damian Gatlin, made a point to walk around neighborhoods and housing projects so that people would see him. The mayor said Ward, the new chief, also supports community policing.
Johnson and Lockley are confident that McComb police are not physically abusive when making arrests. That eliminates one problem.
The next step is better connecting police and the people they protect. Lockley believes this will pay off over time: “Officers will receive more help in all aspects of crime.”
Sounds like a plan to me. This would be a change that everyone would appreciate.