JACKSON, Miss. – The majority-white and Republican-led Mississippi Legislature is taking final steps to expand the the territory of a state-run police department inside the capital city of Jackson, which is majority-Black and governed by Democrats.
Critics say the proposal would stomp on local self-governance and create unequal systems of justice in different parts Jackson, which has the highest percentage of Black residents of any major U.S. city.
Supporters say they are trying to reduce crime in a city of about 150,000 residents, which had more than 100 homicides for each of the past three years.
Senators on Thursday passed the final version of a bill that Democratic Sen. John Horhn of Jackson called “toxic," with 31 Republicans voting yes and 15 Democrats voting no.
The House is expected to pass the bill Friday and send it to Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. He has not said whether he will sign it, but he has often said Jackson has a crime problem.
Most Republicans left the Senate chamber during the debate Thursday, leaving Democrats to give speeches to a room chamber full of empty chairs.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Blackmon of Canton, who is Black, compared the proposal to laws that racist white people enacted to suppress Black people after Reconstruction.
“It's essentially (creating) a police state right here in the city of Jackson,” Blackmon said.
Republican Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula, who is white, said moments later that Blackmon is good at making headline-grabbing statements that unfairly portray Mississippi as hostile.
“This is not about race,” Wiggins said. “This has truly been about helping the citizens of Jackson in a time of need.”
The proposal for state control has angered Jackson residents who don’t want their voices diminished in local government, and it is the latest example of the long-running tensions between the Republican-run state government and the Democratic-run capital city.
The plan would create a temporary court within a Capitol Complex Improvement District inside a portion of Jackson. The judge would not be required to live in Jackson and would be appointed by the Mississippi Supreme Court chief justice. The current chief justice is a conservative white man. The court would have the same power as municipal courts, which handle misdemeanor cases, traffic violations and initial appearances for some criminal charges.
Most municipal judges are appointed by city officials. Jackson has a Black mayor and majority-Black city council. An earlier version of the bill would have created a court with broader powers similar to courts with elected judges.