January 19, 2021 9:57:14 AM
The first goal of Columbus' Community Crime Prevention Task Force is to identify underlying causes of crime in the city so task force members can brainstorm ways to address those causes.
Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton, who was named vice chairman of the task force at its first meeting Thursday, said he plans to implement a survey for arrestees to voluntarily fill out that will look at their background and determine similarities and potential causes of criminal behavior, specifically in Columbus.
"Some people say crime is due to drug use, some say crime is due to poverty," Shelton said. "What specifically is driving the crime in Columbus? That's what we want to identify. Then once we identify it, we want to come up with some practical ways to solve it."
Identifying and addressing the causes of crime -- from poverty to drug and alcohol abuse to domestic violence -- was one goal Mayor Robert Smith said he had in mind when he announced the formation of the task force earlier this month following a slew of high-profile shootings in the city in December.
Violent crime was down both locally and nationwide for the past several years before it increased sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, with national media outlets reporting the homicide rate was up by more than 30 percent in some major US cities.
Shelton and Smith both said Thursday's meeting served as an introduction to name officers and brainstorm initial ideas, while members will suggest more practical goals at the next meeting.
"We just wanted to establish some guidelines on what we're trying to do," Shelton said.
Smith said the issues members discussed ranged from education and job opportunities for incarcerated people to the prevalence of drugs in the community.
While it's universally understood that those factors contribute to crime in various ways nationwide, Shelton said he wanted to use surveys and other data-gathering methods to figure out which of those specifically pertains to people in Columbus. He said he and Chairman Leroy Brooks, who also serves as District 5 supervisor for the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors, plan to come up with a list of survey questions with help from board members. Then his officers will use those surveys to learn more about the city residents involved in crime.
"We're going to interview people," Shelton said. "Some statistical information we get when they go to jail. We find out what's the highest grade they've completed, have they ever been on drugs, stuff like that. We're going to go deeper with an assessment of that person. What's driving them to commit the crime and do what they do?"
Make-up of the task force
The task force committee -- which Smith estimated will end up having 20-25 members -- will meet once per month, but will also be broken into subcommittees which will each address issues like youth development, education and community involvement, neighborhood enhancement revitalization, community policing and crime. Subcommittees will meet as needed, and members can choose which subcommittee to serve on.
As chair, Brooks said he wants the subcommittees to come up with both short term and long term goals addressing issues like cleaning up city streets, addressing dilapidated buildings and houses and coordinating volunteer efforts, as well as law enforcement issues.
"There were some good comments that people had in terms of their thinking to what needs to happen," he said. "However, my recommendation was that we form some committees with specific goals in mind. At some point, you're going to have to transform the conversation into some kind of public policy."
The task force members included local law enforcement officials, including Lowndes County Sheriff Eddie Hawkins, narcotics task force commander Capt. Brian Turner, CPD Criminal Investigation Division head Capt. Rick Jones, and representatives from Mississippi Department of Corrections and the District Attorney's Office, most of whom spoke, Smith said.
"I thought it was a real productive meeting," Smith said. "The law enforcement people shared some good ideas ... as to what the city and county and other law enforcement agencies could do to work together to decrease crime in the city of Columbus, even though we know it's not going to happen overnight. But ... the different classes of law enforcement all working together can't do anything but help decrease crime here in the city."
Other task force members represented the education community, the business community and citizens living in the area. Brooks said he also wants to reach out to members of the parks and recreation and building code departments.
Jason Spears, who as president of Columbus Municipal School District's Board of Trustees and president and chief investment officer of JDS Wealth Strategies represents both the business and education communities on the task force, said he was there to hear what law enforcement officers said and to start to think of ways he could address concerns they raised.
"From the business side, what I tried to listen for was what exactly can be done, as a business owner myself," he said. "What are some of the things that those individuals are seeing from MDOC or the sheriff's office or the police department?"
For example, he said, if what they're seeing is that people coming out of prison need housing or drug rehabilitation, then he wants to be involved in helping find grants or other ways to establish housing and drug programs. If law enforcement finds the primary problem is education opportunities, he wants CMSD to be involved in providing workforce training through its partnership with East Mississippi Community College.
He said he thought the task force is a good first step in coming up with concrete solutions to problems in the community.
"If we want to solve the issues of Columbus then we have to involve the stakeholders, and (those are) the citizens of Columbus," he said.
CONCERNED CITIZENS CRIME PREVENTION TASK FORCE
■ Priscilla White
■ Stephen Harrison
■ Scott Colom, District Attorney
■ Leroy Brooks, Supervisor-District 5
■ Dennis Erby, Former US Marshall
■ Captain Brian Turner, Columbus-Lowndes Joint Drug Task Force
■ Sheriff Eddie Hawkins, Lowndes County Sheriff's Department
■ Chief Fred Shelton, Columbus Police Department
■ Captain Rick Jones, CPD Criminal Investigations Division
■ Attorney Nicole Clinkscales
■ Angela Jones
■ Meisha Miller
■ George Lowe
■ Councilman Bill Gavin, Ward 6
■ Jason Spears, Columbus Municipal School District Trustee
■ Dr. Cherie Labat, Superintendent, Columbus Municipal School District
■ Billy Wayne White
■ Councilman Stephen Jones, Ward 5
■ Nathan Blevins, Deputy Commissioner of Community Corrections
■ Tereda Hairston, Mississippi Dept. of Corrections
■ Debra Taylor, Executive Director, Columbus Housing Authority
■ Greg Lewis, Director, Columbus Recreation Department
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