One Black lawmaker and nine white ones have been chosen to negotiate final versions of bills that could expand the territory of a state-run police department inside Mississippi's majority-Black capital city.
Critics say the bills are a way for the Republican-controlled state government to exert control over Jackson, which is 83% Black and is governed by Democrats.
The Black lawmaker chosen as a negotiator, Democratic Rep. Earle Banks of Jackson, said Tuesday that his goal is to have a safer city. With just under 150,000 residents, Jackson has had more than 100 homicides for each of the past three years.
“I think there is a desire by citizens in the city of Jackson for additional police protection, and Capitol Police may be the answer to that,” Banks told The Associated Press.
Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, on Tuesday finished selecting the senators and representatives to work on the final versions of two bills. The negotiators face a deadline to finish their work by next week.
Banks said he is not surprised eight of the negotiators are white Republicans, one is a white independent and one is a Black Democrat because the GOP holds a wide majority in the state House and Senate.
“It's the reality of the political world we live in,” Banks said.
Since January, the Mississippi House and Senate have passed different versions of two bills that would give the state-run Capitol Police department wider territory to patrol inside Jackson.
One of the bills also would create a wider role for judges who are appointed rather than elected — a proposal that critics say would strip away voting rights in a state where many older Black people still remember being denied access to the ballot before the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 became law.
Banks — who has voted against both bills so far — told AP that he does not think the final proposals will create permanent new courts with appointed judges, as House Republicans originally sought. He said, though, that he thinks Capitol Police will get a larger patrol area.
“I've heard from doctors. I've heard from lawyers. I've heard from retired people,” Banks said. “People want more protection than they have now.”
Jackson Police Department covers the entire city, but it is short-staffed. Capitol Police currently patrol near state government buildings in and near downtown. The Senate voted to expand Capitol Police territory to the entire city, but the House voted for an expansion only into relatively affluent shopping and residential areas, including some predominantly white neighborhoods.
Banks acknowledged some Jackson residents have raised concerns that Capitol Police are more aggressive than city police.
“It's not going to be martial law,” Banks said.