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Greater crime focus could save lives

Natchez Police are investigating a homicide they believe, at least in part, started with a fight over a single cigarette.

If true, think of how insane this crime is.

What kind of a person guns someone down in broad daylight, in a residential neighborhood less than half a mile from a local school?

Perhaps more to the point, how can civil society stop this kind of insanity?

It’s an age-old question and one with a myriad of potential answers — none of which are complete or perfect solutions.

Anytime the matter of criminal behavior in our community comes up, a conversation had long ago with former Adams County Sheriff Tommy Ferrell springs to mind.

Ferrell said, matter-of-factly, that if he were simply allowed to lock up a small handful of people — he estimated it to be less than 100, if I recall correctly, maybe less — he believed he could cut county crime in half or better.

The challenge for law enforcement officers and prosecutors isn’t knowing who most of the criminals in a given area are, it’s either catching them in the act or being able to prove guilt beyond a CSI-TV-hyped jury’s reasonable doubt.

Obviously, even if money was no object, it’s impossible to have enough police on the streets to stop all crime. Besides, many crimes happen on private property — out of public sight — at least until someone gets hurt and the authorities are called.

So if authorities know who most of the criminals are, why is it so difficult to stop them? It’s because criminals — even ones convicted in the past — have rights.

The Fourth Amendment protects us all — criminals too — from “unreasonable” searches.

But who defines an “unreasonable” search? That depends on whom you ask.

Most law-abiding citizens within a few hundred yards of a violent crime such as last week’s homicide, would welcome a police officer stopping a suspicious-looking person in the area. And, since 1968, law enforcement officers have done just that using a court case called Terry vs. Ohio as justification. In that case, the courts ruled that police officers are allowed to conduct a search without a warrant if they suspect criminal activity.

New York City — once considered one of the most dangerous big cities in the country — took this ruling to the max by making two large changes to how they policed.

First they focused hard on getting more officers in the so-called “hot spots” for crime, which seems like a no brainer, but it worked amazingly well.

Second — and fraught with much more controversy — NYPD officers ramped up what they called their “Stop and Frisk” program.

The program has been accused of being a nice name for an ugly practice — racial and ethnic profiling.

NYPD officials deny the claims of racial profiling — despite a judge’s ruling to the contrary. It’s an interesting debate. The extra focus on lowering crime has worked amazingly well in New York City. The murder rate has dropped to less than 400 per year — down from a few thousand per year just a few years ago.

So would such a focus on crime make a difference in our community? And would the practices be tolerated if the results truly reduced violent crime? It’s difficult to know, but worth discussing publicly, particularly if lives could be saved in the process.

 

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.