Jemeria Williams is comforted by Shantell Johnson during the "Peace in the Street. Unity in the Community" walk/rally Saturday morning, October 9, 2021. Williams's daughter was the 7th homicide victim in the city. Johnson resides in Jackson, but has lost a son to gun violence in Texas. Credit: Vickie D. King/Mississippi Today

Hours after graduating from Murrah High School, Kennedy Hobbs visited the cemetery where her boyfriend was buried, placing her sash across his grave and snapping a picture for Instagram, writing, “For u baby.” 

Before the night ended, she would join him, becoming as he was a victim in Jackson’s record 155 homicides in 2021 — the highest per capita murder rate in the nation. Higher than Birmingham, Atlanta, Detroit, and even Chicago, the city with the most overall slayings in 2021. 

But the number Lashanda Jennings-Hobbs cares most about is the one attached to her daughter. 

Police say 18-year-old Kennedy Hobbs had stopped at a Texaco gas station-convenience store and was an innocent bystander when she was shot three times on June 1. 

“It’s terrible,” said Jennings-Hobbs. “Something has got to be done about it.” 

Homicide numbers have soared across the country the past two years, but based on cities with at least 100,000 population, Jackson’s per capita murder rate is the highest in the United States. 

The Chicago Police Department reported the city had 799 homicides in 2021, more than Jackson’s 155. But the homicide rate in Chicago, with a population of roughly 2.7 million, stood at 29.6 per 100,000 population. The rate in Jackson, with a population of 153,701, was about 100 per 100,000 population. 

Credit: Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting

Similarly, Detroit, with more than four times the number of residents than Jackson, had a lower homicide rate — 48.28 per 100,000 residents based on its population of roughly 640,000. Detroit reported 309 homicides, down from its previous high of 324 in 2020. 

Birmingham recorded 132 homicides last year, the highest since 1994, according to the Birmingham Times. The city has a population of roughly 200,733, based on the 2020 Census. Birmingham’s homicide rate was 65.75 per 100,000 population. 

Atlanta, which has a population about four times that of Jackson, had roughly the same number of slayings as Jackson. Atlanta police said they investigated 158 homicides in 2021, but three of those were from incidents that happened in the previous year. Atlanta’s population is about 500,000, meaning the homicide rate for the city was 31.6 per 100,000 population. 

“There is something wrong when Jackson has a higher murder rate than Atlanta,” said John Byrd, vice president of the Association of South Jackson Neighborhoods. 

Byrd said there are two kinds of crime occurring in Jackson: Crime of opportunity and crime of passion. 

No one has been charged in Hobbs’ death. She is buried in the same cemetery as her boyfriend, 21-year-old Jaquan Williams, who was killed after a dispute outside a convenience store.   

“We continue to work behind the scenes to tackle violent crime in Jackson,” Lumumba said in a statement. “We know the pandemic has increased the level of desperation that leads to violent crime across the nation and Jackson has not been immune to that trend.  

“However, while we share that unfortunate reality, it would be incomplete to summarize the rise in crime in Jackson to the pandemic alone. There are other contributing factors at play in Jackson and Hinds County,” Lumumba said. 

The mayor listed the factors contributing to the city’s homicide rate as: 

  • Inability to detain offenders in the Hinds County detention system because a federal consent decree limits the number of individuals that can be housed.  
  • A backed-up court system and state Crime Lab. Even when prosecutors believe they have a solid case against a defendant, an influx of cases and a backlog of evidence prevents them from presenting evidence.  
  • An influx of guns on the street, many of them high-powered, semi-automatic assault rifles. Lumumba said state laws make it difficult for officers to detain suspects believed to be carrying illegal firearms.  

Those aren’t excuses, Lumumba said, but factors residents need to know to understand the difficult realities behind the scenes.  

The city recently conducted a second crime summit, which allowed city, county, state and federal officials, along with court, jail and school district representatives, to come together to discuss not only limitations but explore opportunities for change to reduce crime, according to the mayor. 

 “We also continue to increase the number of officers we have in our police department by holding recruitment training academies and taking measures to boost their pay,” Lumumba said. “But as I’ve said before, this is a problem we can’t merely out-police. There are many factors at play. It will take all of us working together, city, county, state and federal leaders, civic leaders and the community itself, to successfully root out the scourge of violent crime in our city.” 

Across the country, the number of homicides has increased in many cities since the pandemic began and amid the breakdown in trust between the police and the communities they serve. In 2020, which heralded the outset of COVID-19, the number of homicides rose in Jackson to 130, the largest number of homicides in the city since 1995 when the city recorded 92 murders. Then last year, the city shattered the record again.   

But even as homicides rose in many cities, they fell in in Boston, Charlotte, Dallas and most notably in St. Louis, where the city of 300,000 in 2020 had the?worst homicide rate?in the nation — and, like Jackson In 2021, the highest on record in the city’s history. But last year,?homicides fell? dropping 26 percent, according to police crime data. Mayor Tishaura Jones told the Washington Post that the drop was an indication her strategy of addressing violent crime at its source — by reducing poverty, engaging young people and allowing police to focus their energies on the worst violent offenders — can achieve results. 

Former Jackson Police Chief Robert Johnson, who became chief in 1995, said poverty and unemployment can’t be blamed for the surge in gun violence in the Mississippi’s capital city. “We have always had poverty and unemployment with us,” Johnson said. 

Johnson, who has more than 32 years of experience in law enforcement, corrections and federal security, said he learned from his first year on the job as Jackson police chief there must be better manpower distribution and resource allocation. 

“I don’t understand how the number of police officers have declined so much without alarming people,” said Johnson, who also once served as Mississippi’s corrections commissioner. “There is no way a police force as small as Jackson’s is going to effectively investigate a homicide. It often takes hundreds of man-hours to investigate a homicide.” 

Current Jackson Police Chief James Davis said last year that the Jackson Police Department was budgeted for 400 sworn officers but had a vacancy of about 100 officers. The several recruit classes the department held in 2021 lowered the number of openings to about 67, Davis said at a public meeting. For now, the number is back up, to 69. Flowood police charged two rookie Jackson police officers in December with marijuana possession and open container violation. Flowood police said the officers were arrested at a nature trail after reports of people smoking marijuana. Jackson placed the officers on administrative leave.  

Chicago has reported a mass exodus of police officers over the last two years with more than 1,000 leaving the force, including nearly 600 who resigned or retired in the first six months of 2021, according to a report by WGN-TV. 

Detroit has reported losing some police officers to surrounding cities over the years but no mass exodus. 

Last year, Atlanta reported it had a shortage of roughly 400 officers in the department that was budgeted for 2,000 officers. However, then-Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom said the city would hire 250 new officers. Bottom left office this month after not seeking reelection after serving one term as mayor. 

Birmingham has reported some officers have left the department, which has more than 900 officers but no mass exodus. 

Byrd, whom Johnson hired as a data analyst when he was chief, said one of the factors leading to the surge of crime in Jackson is a shortage of officers from dispatcher to sworn officers and a shortage of personnel in the court system. He said too often those who commit crime, if arrested, are repeat offenders. 

Johnson said Jackson officials must get serious about adding manpower to the police department. He said they can add part-time police officers from other jurisdictions. Also, he said Jackson once had a robust reserve unit of citizens. 

Johnson said he began implementing community policing 25 years ago, but the city didn’t keep up a sustained effort over the years to fully implement community policing. Davis said the COVID pandemic has hampered community policing. 

Another thing Johnson recommends is a detailed analysis of each homicide to determine if one is related to another. He said when he was police chief the analysis showed a lot of interconnections and some commonalities in homicides.  

“Had there been some action on the first case, it might had prevented other cases,” Johnson said of the need to analyze some cases. 

Byrd, a retired city of Jackson employee, said data shows a majority of shootings in Jackson is from one demographics, age 13 to 31. 

Byrd suggests: 

  • More collaboration with federal, state and other law enforcement, including working with political leaders in the tri-county area on crime enforcement and prevention. 
  • Asking postal employees, utility companies’ employees and others who may be out in the community to report any suspicious activity they may see. 
  • Placing a priority on mentoring young students in the Jackson Public Schools. 
  • Urging more of the 1,800 churches in the Jackson area to do more in the fight against crime.  
  • Working with colleges and universities in Jackson to map and analyzie crime data to work on solutions. 

And Johnson said don’t forget about the broken window theory. “If you ignore all the small crime, it will lead up to something major. We have seen erosion of respect for law enforcement occurring over the years,” he said.  “If you have a population that expects nothing to happen if you commit a small crime, gradually it’s going to erupt into something bigger…If they are slinging dope, eventually they will sling bullets.” 

This story was produced by the?Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that is exposing wrongdoing, educating and empowering Mississippians, and raising up the next generation of investigative reporters. Sign up for our newsletter. 

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