As Black Lives Matter protests continue, Mississippi lawmakers consider addressing criminal justice policy

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Up-and-coming Canton attorney and politician Ed Blackmon and his friends left a 1978 New Year’s Eve party to go to the Red Lantern in South Jackson, then a popular nightclub for black professionals.

Not long after his group arrived, Jackson police swarmed the club from several directions, sending people scattering.

Blackmon, now 72 and a longtime influential member of the Mississippi House of Representatives, said he was attacked by police that night — they knocked out several of his front teeth with a baton — for no other reason but his skin color. It was one of two times in his life that police officers physically assaulted him.

“The one at the Red Lantern was the worst,” he said, adding that he dropped to his knees and locked his hands behind his head. “That is what we were taught because hands can heal, but your head might not be able to.”

Gil Ford Photography

Rep. Ed Blackmon, D-Canton

Blackmon spoke of the incident when asked about the recent events surrounding George Floyd, a black Minnesota man who was killed by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer who pressed his knee onto Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes. Floyd’s killing, and other recent police killings of black Americans, has spurred protests across the nation, including in Mississippi.

“Not much has changed,” said Blackmon. “Nothing has changed.”

More than 40 years later, Blackmon and other African American members of the Mississippi Legislature say they are hopeful the cell phone video of Floyd’s death in broad daylight on a Minneapolis street will lead to not only changes in attitudes but changes in policy.

Mississippi Today asked several members of the state Legislature for their reaction to Floyd’s killing and the actions that his death spurred, as well as whether the state Legislature can and should do anything to address police brutality and inequity in the criminal justice system.

At a Thursday news conference held by the Legislative Black Caucus, Rep. John Faulkner, D-Holly Springs, read off a list of criminal justice reform bills that black members introduced in recent sessions that have died.

They included:

  • Requiring body cameras for police officers.
  • Requiring a special investigator and prosecutor for officer-involved shootings.
  • Restoring the right to vote to felons once they have completed their sentence.

Blackmon added it also should be a fireable offense for an officer to turn off a body camera while on duty and that changes in law should be made to lessen the degree of immunity from civil lawsuits that law enforcement officers have.

In a statement, the caucus said: “Given the grave importance of relations between law enforcement officers and our communities, the Mississippi Legislative Black Caucus will seek to engage the heads of the various law enforcement agencies and state government to discuss law enforcement training, qualified immunity and best practices going forward.”

Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Rep. Robert Johnson III speaks to media concerning the coronavirus Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, suggested raising the qualifications and pay for police officers as well as requiring more sensitivity training to ensure better personnel. Gov. Tate Reeves also has the authority through executive order to release inmates with nonviolent offenses, which would decrease the prison population, Johnson said. And “if (Reeves) is not willing to do it, we ought to be willing to do it by legislation,” he said.

Mississippi House of Representatives

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens

Like Johnson, Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Ebenezer, said the state should put more of an effort into releasing and rehabilitating nonviolent inmates, although that likely would not happen without the federal government getting involved, he said, because “Mississippi, we love stumbling into the future walking backwards.”

“Racism is America’s Achilles heel,” Clark said. “It’s that one issue that keeps reoccurring that we can’t seem to find the solution to.”

All legislators, both black and white, interviewed by Mississippi Today acknowledged the tragedy of the Floyd case. All supported the right to protest, but some expressed disappointment that in some instances laws were broken in the midst of the protests.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Rep. M. Kevin Horan speaks during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Friday, August 24, 2018.

Rep. Kevin Horan, R-Grenada, spoke of how “terrible” the Floyd case was but “that does not excuse the conditions after the fact that are taking away from the seriousness of the original crime.”

When asked if it was fair to paint all the protesters by the actions of a few, he said: “Unfortunately from an optical standpoint it is hard to separate” for some Americans.

Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth

“That’s their constitutional right, and that’s something that should be honored as much as we honor gun rights, as much as we honor freedom of speech,” said Rep. Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth. “… I’m all for people protesting. There is a line between protesting and rioting and that’s been evidenced in some of the stuff that we’ve seen.”

Sen. Chris McDaniel of Ellisville, a favorite of the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, said Floyd’s murder was “a tragedy” and there is no excuse for it.

Sen. Chris McDaniel, R – Ellisville

“We have a small number of bad apples in every profession, including law enforcement,” McDaniel said. He said people protesting is “a quintessential American act. It is a very important part of our country, but violence, looting and lawfulness cannot be allowed.”

House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, said: “I believe that the incident is shameful. It is appalling. There is no justification for it.”

Republican Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said: “I am proud of the people who are peacefully protesting.” He called the incident leading to those protests “revolting.”

Hosemann said he has met with senators to discuss whether legislation should be considered this session or in the coming sessions to address issues surrounding the incident. He said those conversations would continue, but exactly what that legislation would be – if any – is not clear at this point.

Gil Ford Photography

Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula

There would be a strong likelihood that any legislation dealing with establishing guidelines for police officers would move through the Judiciary B committees, where Sen. Brice Wiggins, R-Pascagoula, is the chair in the Senate. Wiggins expressed outrage at the Floyd killing, but “we must all acknowledge… law enforcement put their lives on the line every day to protect us.”

In terms of legislation to try to stop instances of police misconduct, he said: “I am more than willing to sit down and talk about what, if any, legislation needs to come down.”

Bain, the Judiciary B chair in the House, shared a similar sentiment. The deadline to introduce legislation has already passed, which means lawmakers can’t bring forth any new bills to address issues without two-thirds consent of both chambers to suspend rules and take up new legislation. Lawmakers could still make amendments to general bills by the June 17 deadline, but the legislation would need to have a pertinent code section in it to make any changes.

“We’re past the ability to do anything really as a Legislature (in the current session),” Bain said. “But sure. I think that it’s incumbent upon us as lawmakers to always have discussions about current events, current policy issues.”

House of Representatives

Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia

Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, said she feels for Floyd and his family.

“Sadly, what happened to Mr. Floyd in Minnesota can and does occur in America in other states far too often. What we are experiencing right now is a resounding cry across the country to be heard, to be viewed, and to be treated as human beings,” Cockerham said. “These aches must be addressed by the leadership across all fifty states, nationally, and all U.S. territories.”

Cockerham, chair of the House Judiciary A and Judiciary En Banc committees, said she hopes that the demonstrations occurring will lead to lasting change.

“As a lawmaker, I support community review boards that work closely with law enforcement and the judicial system,” Cockerham said. “Additionally, criminal justice reform measures that promote rehabilitation and allow individuals to re-enter society without stigma should always be a priority. This is a tipping point for our society, and now is not the time to be passive. We should all use our voice to bring about equality in our great nation.”