When he was elected mayor of Jackson, Miss., last summer, Frank Melton – a wealthy former TV executive who briefly headed the state narcotics bureau – promised to do something dramatic about crime in the Deep South city of 170,000, 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, which he now leads three times a week in a bulletproof vest, complete with roadblocks and searches.
It is one of the more unusual displays of mayoral power in any American city. He has some supporters but many critics. 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 a fancy, city-owned Mobile Command Center parked behind the gates of his house. Some are still scratching their heads over the monthlong “state of emergency,” which ended this week. “All he wants to do is play cops – just ignorant stuff,” said county prosecutor Faye Peterson, who has been feuding publicly with Melton. “It looks good, but it’s not effective law enforcement.”