NAACP sues after Mississippi expands control over law enforcement in Jackson

The NAACP sued Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves after he signed legislation that allows state authorities to exert more control over law enforcement in Jackson, including by expanding the Capitol Police, which shot four people last year without much public explanation. 

The lawsuit, which was e-filed Friday evening in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi, accuses Reeves and other state officials of unfairly singling out Jackson, a predominantly Black city struggling with violent crime and an overburdened court system.

The bills Reeves signed Friday create a temporary court system outside city control to be run by appointed judges and prosecutors who will handle cases brought to them by the Capitol Police, a once-obscure agency that has been given power to patrol the capital.

Those moves strip Jackson residents of their voting power and muffle their voice in how justice is administered in the city by sidestepping Mississippi’s existing system in which voters elected their judges and their mayors, who appointed their police chiefs, NAACP officials said. 

They cited as an example Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s 2020 order changing the Jackson Police Department’s use-of-force policy, which bans chokeholds, mandates de-escalation techniques and requires officers to intervene if they see another officer using unnecessary force. The Capitol Police, which hasn’t publicly updated its use-of-force policy since 2006, is part of the state Department of Public Safety and isn’t subject to city policies.

The two new state laws are racially discriminatory because they focus only on Jackson, the NAACP’s lawyers argued. The legislation creates a new court system in a part of the city known as the Capitol Complex Improvement District. The new judges will be appointed by the white chief justice of the Supreme Court and the new prosecutors by the white state attorney general. The Capitol Police is run by a white chief who answers to a white public safety commissioner who answers to a white governor.

The new laws “radically and unconstitutionally circumscribe the ability of Jackson’s singled-out, majority-Black residents to live as full citizens with full rights in their own city,” the lawsuit said.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP and a longtime Jackson resident, said in an interview that the lawsuit was part of a broader effort to push back against years of the state stifling Jackson’s independence. Last year, the civil rights organization accused the state of depriving Jackson of the money it needed to upgrade its crumbling water system. A state environmental official has denied that happened.

Instead of creating a new court system and bringing in a state police agency, Mississippi should add more elected judges to represent Jackson and give Jackson money to hire more city police officers, Johnson said. One of the new laws raises the possibility of Jackson getting one additional elected judge if caseload data shows a need.

“Our goal is to ensure that the citizens of Jackson are not treated like second-class citizens, that the city is not singled out as a pariah and that the citizens can be assured that they have safe, clean drinking water, can elect the candidates of their choice, and have a law enforcement agency that is supportive not demanding to take over,” Johnson, who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in an interview. “That’s how democracy works.”

Mississippi Capitol Police’s expanding role in Jackson

  • Last summer, Mississippi Capitol Police launched a street-crime unit to police parts of Jackson far beyond government buildings.
  • The agency has an unusual level of authority for a state capitol police force, and it has faced criticism for aggressive patrols in the majority-Black city.
  • In December, a Capitol Police car chase ended with an innocent 49-year-old woman shot in the arm while lying in bed. Surveillance video appears to show the moment an officer opened fire. The shooting remains under investigation.

The lawsuit alleges that the new laws violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. It also targets a provision that gives the Capitol Police broad power over the approval of events held on or next to state government property. The NAACP lawyers said that provision could stifle people’s right to hold protests or other First Amendment-protected activities, including expressing their disapproval of the new court and police agency.

The lawsuit also names as defendants Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch, Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Randolph, Mississippi Public Safety Commissioner Sean Tindell and Mississippi Capitol Police Chief Bo Luckey. The NAACP said it filed the lawsuit on behalf of its Mississippi and Jackson chapters, Jackson residents and local civil rights activists. The organizations said they want the state blocked from making the changes outlined in the laws.

Reeves said in a statement that the legislation seeks to help a city suffering from “an unprecedented epidemic of crime,” including a murder rate that has put Jackson among “one of the most dangerous places in the world.” Reeves said the accusations of racism, driven by “liberal activists” and “the national media,” were false. 

Reeves pushed back against portrayals of the state taking power away from the people of Jackson. The Capitol Police will help city police fight crime, he said. The new court’s decisions may be reviewed by elected judges, he said. The legislation improves transparency by requiring the Department of Public Safety to hold four town hall meetings a year, and Capitol Police officers to wear body cameras, Reeves said.

“There is a clear consensus that more law enforcement boots on the ground are needed in Jackson, especially given that the city’s police department has chronically been understaffed by at least a hundred officers,” Reeves said.

The other defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Tindell has previously defended the Capitol Police’s work and pledged to increase the agency’s transparency.

Bracey Harris contributed.

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