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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Mayor Riding Shotgun

Frank Melton, elected as a crime fighter, takes part in the hunt for bad guys. He also takes some home to save them. Not everyone's applauding.

July 29, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

JACKSON, Miss. — Sometime before sunset, Mayor Frank Melton roared into a Kroger parking lot in the ungainly box-on-wheels that has become his signature vehicle.

Technically, it's known as a "Mobile Command Center" -- a tricked-out RV that was once used for SWAT team operations. Tonight, Melton was riding shotgun in the thing, with cop cars in front and TV news vans behind.

As the entourage rolled to a stop, an onlooker asked the mayor what he was up to.

"I'm gettin' ready," he drawled, "to raise hell."

Melton hopped out of his RV and sauntered into the store for some grape soda, a 9-millimeter Glock on his hip.

The soda was for the poor teenagers Melton would pick up a few minutes later and load into the back of the RV, giving them a chance to see a little excitement on a Wednesday evening. The Glock was in case the mayor ran into trouble on his primary mission: hunting down Vidal Sullivan, 33, a former murder suspect who was wanted on a kidnapping warrant.

"How you doin', Frank?" the Kroger security guard asked.

"No bullet holes," said the mayor, strolling toward the soda aisle. "You know how it goes."

A Wild West-style manhunt, a rolling media spectacle, an improvised field trip for inner-city youth: It was, in many ways, a typical night on the town for Jackson's mayor.

When he was overwhelmingly elected last summer, Melton -- a wealthy former TV executive who briefly headed the state narcotics bureau -- promised to do something dramatic about crime in this Deep South city, which has been battered by decades of white flight and black poverty.

His methods, and his message, have been anything but subtle. At his first City Council meeting, he passed out cowboy hats. Hours after his inauguration, he embarked on the first of his nighttime crime sweeps.

A year later, Jacksonians are used to the excursions. Melton leads them three times a week in a bulletproof vest, heading up roadblocks, conducting searches, looking for bad guys.

It is one of the more unusual displays of mayoral power in any American city, and it is certainly unlike anything anyone has seen in Mississippi's capital. People here are so frustrated with crime that even some of Melton's targets think he's on to something.

"He's all right," said Jermaine Butler, a 34-year-old former gang member, just moments after Melton had confronted him and asked if he was holding drugs. "He's just doing his job."

Not everyone agrees. Civil rights leaders have accused Melton -- who is black -- of racial profiling and possibly violating due-process rights. The state attorney general has warned him to leave police work to sworn officers, concerned that his strong-arm tactics may jeopardize the admissibility of evidence gathered in searches.

Journalists have wondered why he has to keep that fancy, city-owned Mobile Command Center parked behind the gates of his house. One family accused Melton of harassing them on a late-night outing and recently filed an intent-to-sue notice against him and the city.

Some are still scratching their heads over the monthlong "state of emergency," which ended this week. Melton had hoped to bring in the National Guard to fight crime, until the idea was dismissed by the governor's office. Instead, the declaration mostly resulted in an earlier curfew for teenagers.

Jackson Police Cmdr. Tyrone Lewis says crime decreased during the state of emergency, although he could not produce statistics to back that up. Others, however, are wondering whether the broader strategy is doing any good: Recent police statistics show that major crimes are up about 15% over last year.

"All he wants to do is play cops -- just ignorant stuff," said Hinds County Dist. Atty. Faye Peterson, who has been feuding publicly with Melton. "It looks good, but it's not effective law enforcement."

In Melton's mind, Jackson -- a city of 180,000, 70% black and largely poor -- has failed to benefit from the safer, more bureaucratic approaches to criminal justice espoused by his predecessors.

"It's time for something different," he said. "I don't know if it's going to work out or not, but I have to make an effort.... I couldn't live with myself as a human being if I didn't try."

The strategy is part of a bigger crusade that predates the election. Melton's most cherished achievements as a private citizen were remarkable -- and similarly unorthodox -- acts of personal initiative. He points to the 55 boys he says he has taken out of the ghetto and raised in his gated mansion. And the 150 college tuitions he says he has funded through his foundation. And the 70-plus funerals.

Melton says he has known Sullivan, tonight's fugitive, for nearly two decades. He met him the way he seems to have met half the poor black kids in Jackson -- by walking the streets as a sort of freelance father figure.

Melton says he has helped many of those kids. Sullivan, he says, "is one of the kids I missed."

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