Does Natchez have a gang problem?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 7, 2010

NATCHEZ — Adams County is by no means the gang capital of America, but it ain’t Mayberry either.

Gangs have taken on a mythical quality in the city and county, law enforcement officials say, but the problem is real, and has been for quite some time.

“Whether it’s a large street gang in Chicago or a small, disorderly gang in Natchez, the crime is still the same,” Adams County Sheriff Chuck Mayfield said.

“You still have drive-by shootings, you still have drug deals, you still have turf wars. Our problem here is just as bad as any other place, and it’s not limited to one race or ethnicity.”

Natchez Police Chief Mike Mullins said area gangs are essentially neighborhood groups that build violent rivalries. An average gang member’s age ranges between 13 and 20, and members often commit crimes such as aggravated or simple assault, malicious mischief, petty theft, and disorderly conduct.

Mayfield said some gang members are as young as 9 years old, and perform illegal acts to save older members from harsher punishment.

Both Mayfield and Mullins’ gang demographics are derived from respective gang intelligence databases.

“We rely on the information we receive, and that information is hard to get,” Mullins said. “We do keep intelligence on who’s involved and what they’re involved in. By having that information, it gives us a place to start when a crime occurs.”

Mayfield and Metro Narcotics Commander David Lindsey are building ACSO’s database to pinpoint exactly how many gangs exist in the area, and where they are located.

“We’re putting informants in these groups to get more information on their movement, gang tattoos and gang paraphernalia,” Mayfield said. “The more intelligence you build, the more you can do.”

As the intelligence database grows, Mayfield said the ACSO will shift its attention to seeking counseling and rehabilitation for gang members.

Mayfield said suspects believed to be gang members often come from middle-to-low-income single-parent homes, and long for attention and nurturing.

“They are looking for attention, respect and people they can depend on,” Mayfield said. “But with gangs, it’s a negative nurturing.

“This is not just about arresting people. It’s about trying to find the root causes. It’s about breaking them up from this life and showing them a better way.”

As Natchez-Adams School District Safety and Security Supervisor, Ray Brown has observed the longing that exists among gang members.

“They’re looking for something they don’t have — a mother, a father, someone to care for them,” Brown said. “Gangs provide the things that one is missing.”

Brown said Adams County is home to “wannabe” gangs that inflict just as much damage, if not more, than inner city groups.

Brown, once a candidate for Adams County Sheriff, addressed gang prevention during last year’s race. Acknowledging gangs and their rivalries, he said, is the first step in curbing the problem.

“It’s an issue that some might not want to admit or are afraid to talk about, but reality has to set in,” Brown said. “People have closed eyes and closed ears to it, but there needs to be open eyes and open ears.”

Brown said today’s gangs have gone beyond specific colors or bandanas to symbolize their affiliation. Some gang members sport NFL jerseys and other brand name apparel to prove their allegiances.

Brown said gang members also prove their allegiances by robbing unsuspecting victims. Victims view the criminal incident as is, but potential gang members view it as the key to acceptance.

“They rob someone not because they need the money, but because it may be part of an initiation,” Brown said.

“(The victim) might not even know an incident is tied to an initiation,” Mayfield said. “A cowardly sucker punch to somebody is a rite of passage for somebody.”

Mayfield said he hopes building gang intelligence and developing counseling programs will lead to fewer arrests and fewer inmates to feed, which also leads to spending less taxpayer dollars. However, serious offenders will be punished accordingly.

“At some point, society can only do so much,” Mayfield said. “Of course (prevention) is not going to cure all ills. There has to be enforcement and consequences for their actions, and they have to be dealt with harshly once they cross the line.

Mayfield strongly encourages the public to contact the NPD or ACSO if they suspect gang activity in their neighborhoods, and advises the public to be aware of their surroundings day and night.

“We not only need the community’s support, but we need their eyes and ears, Mayfield said.

“There are people who can attest to the fact that gangs do exist, and they are real people doing real damage.”

To report suspicious activity, call the NPD at 601-445-5565 or the ACSO at 601-442-2752.