February 12, 2014 9:51:37 AM
JACKSON -- Mississippi could be one step closer to setting up a trio of elite state law-enforcement strike forces.
House members passed House Bill 749 by a 69-48 vote Tuesday to create a strike force office under Attorney General Jim Hood.
Gov. Phil Bryant has championed the measure as a way of providing extra help to areas with serious crime problems.
"These elite forces will respond to a specific high-crime area and hit gangs and drug dealers where they live," Bryant said in his State of the State address last month. "Give law enforcement the authority and the resources they need, and they will get the job done."
Democrat Hood and Republican Bryant would jointly choose commanders for groups of 12 to 15 law enforcement officers in the northern, central and southern parts of the state. Officers would be loaned by city, county and state law enforcement agencies. Proponents plan to spend $1.5 million for overtime and equipment.
Opponents fear the plan could lead to abuses of authority or trample local powers, especially those reserved for sheriffs.
"There's not any evidence that local law enforcement will be involved," said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who persuaded House members to adopt a three-year limit on the bill.
Right now, state troopers and narcotics agents who work for the state don't have general law enforcement powers.
"Everyone needs to understand we're setting up a state police force in this state, which is a major change of state policy," Brown said.
House Judiciary A Committee Chairman Mark Baker, R-Brandon, said those fears were overblown. He noted language in the bill that says a strike force would only enter a locality by invitation.
"The intent is to assist," Baker said. "It's not to take over."
He got support from two Mississippi Delta members -- Democrat Chuck Espy of Clarksdale and Republican Tommy Taylor of Boyle -- who said their cities need help to turn back rampant crime.
"They're trying to do everything they can, the county and the city, but they need help," Espy said.
The measure's prospects are unclear in the Senate, where a similar bill died in a committee.
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