Community needs to address crime issues

Published 12:04 am Sunday, December 31, 2017

Natchez-Adams County’s top story of the year should be crime. What used to be a safe place to live is no longer. Murders, shootings and woundings, thefts, break-ins: Violence has taken hold of the area and is profoundly changing how the community views itself and how Natchez really is at its core.

This situation was allowed to get out of control by the lack of action for years by the Adams County Board of Supervisors and  the Natchez Mayor and Board of Aldermen, coupled with changes in demographics. It’s not a new trend, but something that’s been happening slowly but surely over the past decade.

Fortunately, the new police chief, Walter Armstrong and Sheriff Travis Patten are distinctly aware of the trend. It’s too early to see whether the city’s hiring of Armstrong will work out. But so far, he shows the signs that he intends to change both his department and the crime landscape for the better. Patten, still in his first term of office, is doing a good job, despite his lack of experience as a law enforcement administrator. Patten’s deputies have been very active in making some high profile drug dealer and felony arrests, which the community appreciates. Likewise with Patten, it’s still too early to tell whether he will be a successful crime fighter.

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What Natchez-Adams County hasn’t done as yet is change the way we run law enforcement. While resources for the sheriff’s department are adequate, the same cannot be said for the police department. With years of bad management and poor funding, the officer staff has declined in its capabilities as has the department’s ability to actually fight crime. The department has been reactive versus proactive. Now that the police chief has closed the city jail with the approval of the aldermen, more finances will be freed for actual policing duties.

Natchez is in a small way, like Jackson, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, D.C. Yes, we have the homes, the special events and the community spirit that those communities don’t have. But guns and violence have taken over Natchez.

Sooner or later, the city and county need to change the way they operate the two separate law enforcement agencies. It makes no sense whatsoever that Adams County deputies refer in-city cases to the police, simply because the police operate in the city. The public itself sees the sheriff’s department as more capable than the police department, so city and county residents will call the sheriff’s office first for help, hoping they’ll get a more competent response. It means taxpaying residents who are paying for competent law enforcement don’t receive what they’ve paid for.

Chief Armstrong should be given time to see if he can engineer a turn-around. But if he is not able to do so in three years, then Natchez-Adams County should merge its departments, with the police department closing, except for radar patrol. Currently, Mississippi law does not allow sheriff’s departments to issue speeding tickets and use radar. If Armstrong is still police chief when a merger occurs, he could be offered the number two job in the sheriff’s office or run for sheriff himself.

With only 31,248 people in the city and county combined, there are few good financial or administrative reasons to have two separate departments for law enforcement. The hassling over E911 service and emergency calls is just one more example of why two departments should be one.

Merging the two departments is not a panacea. Only excellent leadership from the top, proper staffing and funding will take a dent out of the growing crime problem. Additionally, the way street policing is done must be changed. I’ve said it repeatedly. If you don’t start doing roadblocks all over town for the criminals, especially in the high crime areas, you will allow the thugs free reign to travel in their cars to commit crimes at will.

There is, of course, the added component of prosecution, conviction and sentencing for those committing felony crimes. There have been far too many plea-downs and light sentencing for career criminals. Bonded out felons routinely commit more crimes and are still not in jail with bond revoked. Unless the bad guys and girls are put in jail for their crimes, the community will not be safe. No more hugs and teddy bears for felons. It’s time for stricter sentencing. We’ve had a bumper crop of bad judges, except for one for many years. And the community has suffered as a result.

If the top story for 2017 is crime, then the 2018 story should be about the attempted turn-around. If it’s not, then Natchez-Adams County’s crime problem will accelerate, continuing the adverse trend of recent years.

If you don’t think things are changing for the worse, then think of this. Morgantown-Oakland used to be a wonderful, safe place to live with nice, clean yards and trim houses in the early 1980s. Today, much of the neighborhood is run down, crime ridden. Some parts of its would classify as a rural slum. An elderly couple was pistol whipped in their own home by thieves who broke in. That’s the Morgantown of today. Come back in 30 years, and you will see the same type of neighborhood on the south and north sides of Main Street. Pardon the expression, ‘sure as shootin’,’ it’s going to happen, unless the community solves its crime problems.
Peter Rinaldi is a former Natchez resident, now living in Bonita Springs, Florida.