CLARKSDALE – After a year and a half in office, the city’s appointed police chief faces more issues than she anticipated from this Mississippi Delta community: insubordination and alleged corruption within the police department; bridging trust between the community and law enforcement; and an increasing number of homicides amid a decreasing number of officers.
Through Facebook posts and talks with local government officials, citizens here expressed their concerns about safety and the alarming crime rate of Coahoma County. So far, there have been 13 homicides this year, including an officer-involved shooting that resulted in a death, whereas in 2016 there were only six, according to a handout the police department gave to citizens at a November 12 board of mayor and commissioners meeting.
Mississippi Today requested detailed crime reports, including the number of homicides, the total number of crimes and the number of crimes committed by juveniles from 2013 to present but have not received them from the police department.
Seven of the 13 homicides this year have been solved, said Clarksdale Police Chief Sandra Williams, the first black woman to serve in the position. Many have been retaliation type homicides and they deal with gang involvement, she said.
“We will not stop working everyday as a unit in an effort to prevent some of the crime that’s going on in this community,” she said. “We all know we’ve had a rash of shootings these past couple of weeks. That is a concern to me.”
Despite this progress, the continuous reports of gunfire, burglaries and robberies are unsettling for residents.
Forty-year-old Clarksdale native Nikole Powell, who had never come to a board meeting before, conveyed her concern to the four city commissioners and mayor during their regular board meeting earlier this month, saying that she advised her children to lay on the floor after a shooting that occurred a street behind her home less than a month ago.
“Is that likely that you have to get on the floor … I get up every morning like everybody else in here and go to work at 5 o’clock in the morning, and I (am) scared to come out of the house,” said Powell. “Do we have enough police to surround the city? ‘Cause we pay a lot of taxes too. We should feel safe, that’s honest…. It’s really time for the citizens and board and whoever else to take our city back.”
The mayor, commissioners, and police chief acknowledged the concerns of the citizens, providing insight into what they say is an inherited 15-year problem and offering solutions to reduce the crime.
Mayor Chuck Espy elaborated, stating there were some officers who couldn’t accurately write reports.
“We’re talking about traffic citations and can’t fill out a report. We’re talking about murder investigations and can’t fill out a report … If there is an officer that cannot do proper reporting and this is the epitome of justice,” he said. “It’s been an alarming scenario on what has been occurring for the last 15 years. I’m talking about botched investigations all across the board.”
Currently, there are 33 officers employed at the Clarksdale Police Department, a loss of 12 since last year said Williams.
However, the board approved the offer of employment to five new police officers, bringing the total to 38. And on Nov. 19, Williams announced they’re looking to hire more.
With the numbers down, Williams said she knew the department needed outside help. She added that they are currently working with other agencies – the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Mississippi Bureau of Investigations, and the Coahoma County Sheriff Department.
The city also approved the hire of a consultant, Fernando Hill, who is from Clarksdale and previously worked for Homeland Security.
When starting this job, Williams said she heard “rumors” of police officers tipping off drug dealers and the public distrust of law enforcement. Through her one-year assessment of the department, she said she has found officers that are “insubordinate, have issues of adapting to change, a lack of discipline, a lack of training,” but she also makes clear the department has officers who are honest and hardworking.
The solutions Williams proposed include customer service training, anger management training, community policing, formal disciplinary action, suspensions, and educating the officers, so they will have the “information, knowledge, and experience to get out here and to serve the citizens of the community.”
There are parents like Powell who want to see change and want residents to continue to make Clarksdale their home. She mentioned she has family members who have left, noting they would never move back.
“You have a lot of parents out here who had to bury their son less than one year ago and I sure don’t wanna bury mine,” she said, recalling moving one of her sons to Texas.
But the elected officials promise to get the crime under control.
“You asked me to come clean the garbage up and I’m here to come take the trash out,” said Espy. “I promise you by the end of the two-year period you’re gonna see something so totally different that it’s going to be a good thing.”
Commission Bo Plunk advised the community to help in the effort by keeping the officials informed of what’s going on.
“Y’all hear things more than the police does. Come back and let us know what’s going on. Y’all are the gauge,” he said.
“We act on what the citizens are saying. If enough citizens are coming in here and saying it, like the old saying, there’s a little fire and little truth somewhere so if this room is packed full of people and everybody is saying the same thing, something is going on.”
Last Monday evening, over 15 elected officials – state, local, and federal – convened at the Coahoma County Courthouse to hear proposed solutions from Coahoma County residents to alleviating the crime.
Challenges cited to progress include a cycle of poverty and a lack of economic development. Also, mental health awareness and education were key issues brought up during the hour or so discussion.
“Everyone remember when people in Chicago was getting killed every weekend? We weren’t concerned. It didn’t bother us, now the rooster has come home to nest,” said Milton Gardner.
Veronica Stuckey added: “We have a manifestation of poverty. When people have a choice between whats right and wrong and trying to survive, which one you think they’re gonna choose? They’re gonna choose to survive, and that’s where a lot of robbing, stealing and killing come from.”
A dozen people presented their ideas and they all agreed that a concerted effort between local and state government officials with local leaders, parents, and pastors is vital to getting the crime under control.
Some solutions discussed included: creating a mandatory curfew, enforcing stricter gun laws, building a recreational center, stronger parental involvement, utilizing crime stoppers, holding each other accountable, connecting youth with job readiness and programs, changing the mindset of the community, using available resources in the community, and allowing police officers to do their jobs, to name a few.
“If we want change, all we have to do is follow the steps to create change,” said Chandra Williams, executive director of Crossroads Cultural Arts Center.
As far as next steps, city officials will create a list of corrective actions by the second week of December, said Espy.