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Mayor's arrest triggers further debate

Frank Melton, the polarizing leader of Jackson, Miss., is jailed for probation violations on weapons charges.

March 08, 2007|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — Frank Melton -- the unorthodox, pistol-toting mayor of Jackson, Miss. -- was jailed Wednesday for violating his probation on weapons charges, adding another twist to an already bizarre civic drama.

A court is to determine Friday whether the mayor's probation should be revoked. If it is, Melton faces up to six months in state prison. But he still could remain mayor because the original violation was a misdemeanor.

Melton became a polarizing figure in Jackson shortly after his 2005 election because of his unusual crime-fighting tactics, hailed by some and denounced by others.

That debate was enhanced by Wednesday's arrest.

Jackson Police Cmdr. Tyrone Lewis, a spokesman for the city, said the arrest gave Mississippi's capital a "black eye" and sent criminals the wrong message.

"You've got a mayor being arrested for a misdemeanor when you have more serious and violent criminals running loose in this city," he said.

Others hoped the Melton era would end soon.

"We're living through one of the worst D-movies one could imagine," Donna Ladd, editor of the alternative Jackson Free Press, wrote in a Wednesday editorial. "It's time to hit rewind."

Melton -- a wealthy former TV executive -- became well-known as the tough-talking host of a Jackson television show, and later headed the state narcotics bureau.

Soon after his election as mayor, he began riding around Jackson in a SWAT team vehicle, heading up curfew crackdowns and arresting drug suspects.

Supporters thought the hands-on approach was needed in this city of 180,000, which had 53 homicides in 2004.

But critics accused Melton, who is black, of racial profiling, violating civil liberties and overstepping his bounds as mayor.

They also said he was coddling some miscreants while aggressively pursuing others. Melton long had taken in numerous boys with troubled backgrounds into his large home.

One of those boys was arrested in 2006 for failing to appear in court on armed robbery charges.

In November, Melton pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor weapons violations and no contest to a charge of carrying a pistol on a college campus, and was given a year's probation with numerous stipulations.

The warrant for his arrest states that he violated probation in January and February by staying out past curfew, engaging in "unauthorized police raids," and spending the night of Jan. 3 with minors.

On March 1, the day the warrant was issued, Melton -- who has had heart problems -- checked into a hospital. Hinds County Sheriff Malcolm E. McMillin declined to arrest him there because, he said, he didn't want to be stuck paying for an armed guard or medical bills.

Melton turned himself in Wednesday morning, McMillin said. The mayor's attorneys have challenged the arrest warrant in Mississippi's Supreme Court.

Even with the mayor jailed, Lewis said, Melton was "fully in charge of the city, and we expect it to stay that way."

But Melton faces potentially more serious legal issues.

In April, he is scheduled to stand trial on felony burglary and conspiracy charges stemming from an incident in which he and members of his entourage allegedly destroyed a duplex during a crime sweep.

If convicted of a felony, Melton would be forced to give up the mayor's job, Lewis said.

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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