Groups look for ways to deal with problem

Published 12:06 am Thursday, November 1, 2007

NATCHEZ — City aldermen divided up duties and made plans for future meetings at their Wednesday night discussion of crime.

The meeting — originally labeled as closed to the public — was never meant to be closed, the mayor said. Aldermen said at their last meeting that the discussion would be closed. One alderman repeated the message Monday, and spokesmen at city hall early Wednesday said the meeting was closed.

After an attorney for The Democrat contacted City Attorney Everett Sanders Wednesday afternoon, Sanders said the meeting was open to the public.

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Mayor Phillip West said the meeting was a committee meeting, not closed to the public, as City Hall personnel said earlier this week.

The public was not invited to the meeting, he said, but nor were they excluded.

“The first meeting can’t be a public meeting because we’ve got to address the problem so we can determine how to approach it,” West said.

No members of the public attended, but city, law enforcement and school officials tossed around ideas to decrease area crime in Wednesday’s meeting. Their ideas included more foot patrols in areas of the city, better lighting and increasing the number of police officers at schools.

Most in attendance agreed law enforcement alone would not solve problems such as drugs or ongoing conflicts.

“It’s not caused by us not doing something,” Police Chief Mike Mullins said. “It’s about social issues. I think we all know a child doesn’t wake up when they’re 20 and start committing crimes.”

Crime hasn’t increased much at all, Mullins said.

“We are one of the lowest crime rates in Mississippi for a town our size,” Mullins said. “It may not seem that way to people right in the middle of it, but we are.”

Adams County Sheriff Ronny Brown said the county’s crime rate was down and attributed that to programs such as neighborhood watch and D.A.R.E.

Both law enforcement chiefs said they needed more officers to do a better job.

Aldermen and law enforcement both agreed that getting officers interacting directly with residents was a good way to build relationships and, thus, prevent crime.

When aldermen suggested ideas such as increasing foot and bicycle patrol, Mullins said those were very good ideas, but it would take more manpower than his department can spare at the moment.

Another instance where more law enforcement officers could be used is in schools, said Wayne Barnett, director of school district operations.

“One of the best programs we had was school resource officers,” Barnett said. They make a big difference in fighting crime. (Students) get to know the police officer before they get in trouble, and the police officer gets to know the students.”

Several years ago, a grant paid for four officers for the district. When the grant ran out, the district had to start footing the bill. Currently, the school district has one school resource officer.

“If you’re serious about fighting crime, you need a police officer in the schools not just when you have a problem,” Barnett said.

Jobs were divided up among those present.

The responsibility for cooperating with Entergy to replace or install streetlights in dark areas of town was given to the public works department and city planning.

Law enforcement and school officials were asked to make a list of what they thought could help combat crime and how those ideas could be implemented.

Everyone was asked to come up with ideas before the next meeting.

“We’re not expecting everybody to come back with major out-of-this-world plans,” West said. “We’ll see what the suggestions are and if they’re doable.”

At the end of the meeting, everyone agreed small, neighborhood-based meetings to get feedback would be the next step.

The group agreed to set up a neighborhood meeting among Prince Street and Woodlawn Avenue residents at 5:30 p.m. Nov. 8.

The city, school and law enforcement officials will meet again Nov. 14.