The City of Jackson has agreed to federal oversight of its roadblock policy in a settlement announced this week.
The lawsuit over the roadblock policy was filed in February by the Mississippi Center for Justice (MCJ) and the MacArthur Justice Center, and has been in settlement negotiations since early March.
The Jackson Police Department calls the roadblock policy “Ticket Arrest Tow.” It is used around the city to check if drivers have valid licenses, insurance and registration. Police officials say the roadblocks also allow officers to see if a driver has an active warrant.
Under the terms of the settlement, roadblocks will be required to be evenly distributed across Jackson, may not be used for general crime control, and may only be implemented in specific circumstances relating to alcohol and drug consumption or high rates of car crashes. It also requires the Jackson Police Department to record and report data regarding its use of roadblocks and to distribute know-your-rights flyers at each checkpoint.
The federal court enforcement of this settlement will continue for the next four years.
Between Jan. 4 to March 18, Jackson police officers made 208 arrests – 10 for felonies, 198 for misdemeanors – from its roadblocks, according to information obtained through a public records request shared with MCJ.
During that period, Jackson police officers also issued 1,149 citations and towed 186 vehicles.
Members of the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety, who reached out to MCJ about the roadblock issues, spoke with over 80 people in South and West Jackson, where they said they’d heard most of the roadblocks were occurring, and found many had negative experiences.
People said they felt inconvenienced and unable to move in and out of their communities. Alliance members heard a story about a mother who walked home with her children in the rain because her car was towed after going through a checkpoint.
Timothy Halcomb, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he got involved after his experience with a roadblock in his community in South Jackson.
‘We live in a poor neighborhood, but that doesn’t make us criminals,” Halcomb said at a press conference Friday. “Why are they doing this to us?”
Cliff Johnson, director of the MacArthur Justice Center, said he believes this policy was borne out of concern about violent crime, but police officers address the problem by focusing their efforts on minor crimes.
“One thing I would urge the residents of Jackson to think about is, when we demand action from the police, we need to be careful what we ask for because we just might get it,” Johnson said.
Johnson offered compliments to the city on its handling of the lawsuit for their willingness to negotiate, and in doing so, for saving the city hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation fees.
The legal team said their goal was to have roadblocks completely eliminated, citing a body of evidence that roadblocks disproportionately impact poorer residents and do not meaningfully reduce crime. While this goal was not achieved, they said the settlement reduces harm to residents and they will continue to monitor Jackson’s adherence to it.
“While we continue to hold Jackson accountable for civil rights violations just as we would any other police department across the state, we do so because we want this capital city to be great, we believe that it can be,” Johnson said. “I believe that the settlement we’ve announced today, and the people who’ve put it together in the way they have, is really good news that we are moving in the right direction.”
Paloma Wu, MCJ’s deputy director of impact litigation, said they also have evidence that roadblock policies are a problem across the state, one she intends to continue pursuing.
“(Roadblocks) waste precious police resources needed for responding to violent crime, and make poor residents poorer without making them safer,” Wu said.
Editor’s note: Vangela M. Wade, president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, is a member of Mississippi Today’s board of directors.