City police targeting teen crime Hopes are high summer ball will keep youths out of trouble

Published 12:15 pm Thursday, June 3, 2010

With summer here, law enforcement officers plan to go on the offensive, fighting a youth crime rate that nearly doubled in 2009 with new and expanded programs designed to keep teens busy.

“I feel like kids are getting the message and some kids we arrested last year are now on probation,” said Vicksburg police Lt. Bobby Stewart, head of the investigations. “Last year was a busier year as far as arrests and kinds of arrests.”

In 2009, police recorded 663 charges against teens compared to 395 in 2008 and 304 in 2007. Outside the city, the Warren County Sheriff’s Department recorded a steady number of charges at 106, 103 and 119 during the same three years.

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Getting a grip on muggings, vehicle burglaries and other thefts committed by young people has been identified as a priority for Police Chief Walter Armstrong, appointed to the position 11 months ago.

“With the summer programs we are implementing and with increased police officers hired to patrol the streets, and perhaps, with other programs around the community, I anticipate the number to go down,” Armstrong said.

From Jan. 1 through May 31 this year, police recorded 221 misdemeanor and felony arrests of juveniles in the city, down slightly from the same six months last year when police had filed 242 charges against people younger than 18. The sheriff’s department is at 37.

Some business owners are stepping up their efforts, too.

Sam Eljack, manager of Speed Mart at Speed and Washington streets, installed pull-down, metal security guards for the three window- and two door-openings of his store, citing multiple break-ins in the three years he’s been open.

“They broke into the store five times in the last six months,” he said, adding that he believes teens are responsible. “This is the only way to solve it.” Since installing the guards, Eljack said he has not had any problems with break-ins, but loitering is still a problem. “We keep calling the police every two days,” he said. Police have responded to the issue by adding extra patrols in the area, and Eljack said he is appreciative of the effort.

In the county, the juvenile arrest rate is not as high as the city’s.

U.S. Justice Department figures lag local tallies but contain alarming numbers. There were 2.11 million juvenile arrests nationwide in 2008 and 2.18 million in 2007. Figures for 2009 were not available, but the federal report said juveniles accounted for 16 percent of all violent crime arrests and 26 percent of all property crime arrests. Armstrong has said up to 75 percent of all local crimes are committed by youthful offenders.

Warren County outside Vicksburg has almost an equal population, but it’s less concentrated. “We feel fortunate that the youth crime statistics are not where they are in some areas,” said Sheriff Martin Pace. “Any crime involving the youth is too much. It’s not just damaging to the victims, but also tragic to the youth offender.”

So far, the most arrests made in the city are for simple assault, a misdemeanor, with 47 arrests.

“A lot of the assaults are stemming from incidents at the school,” Stewart said, adding that school resource officers at Vicksburg High School, Vicksburg Junior High School and Warren Central Junior High School have the authority to arrest those involved in fights. In March, Warren Central High School hired former Vicksburg police officer James Edward Lee Jr. as the school resource officer with grant funds.

Unless prosecuted under specific statutes, juvenile cases are processed through Warren County Youth Court where sessions and records are closed to the public by law.

Two other misdemeanors yielding arrests in the city were disorderly conduct with 34 and shoplifting of items under $250 with 38, but one offense that Stewart said has seen a decrease this year is robbery, a felony.

“Robberies are going down due to the fact that 15- and 16-year-olds are now realizing that they can be charged as an adult,” Stewart said. “Some of those charged last year were charged as adults.”

Last year, five teens made headlines when they were arrested for a string of armed robberies and assaults on pedestrians in the spring in the downtown area.

Arrested were Conti Tillis, 17, 1110 Fayette St.; Deshawn Williams, 18, 119-B Elizabeth Circle; Jacorey Wright, 17, 1405 Locust St.; Blake Reed, 18, 2501 Culkin Road, Apt. G8, and Sha’Kayla Caples, 19, 414 Ford Road. All but Caples were indicted on up to six counts of armed robbery, in which Tillis was sentenced to five years in prison, plus $522.50 in restitution and court costs. Caples was not prosecuted in exchange for her cooperation against the other defendants and a 2009 murder case in which her cousin, Gemini Porter, 16, 2501 Culkin Road, is a defendant.

Porter, along with Kersey Young, 17, 1115 Adams Lane; and Roosevelt Dewayne Harris, 18, 1803 First East St., are accused in the March 15 shooting death of 25-year-old Antonio Turner on Alcorn Drive. Their trial is set to begin Monday. If convicted, the teens could face up to life in prison without parole. Harris is currently serving a five-year sentence for selling cocaine, for which he was convicted in March.

Back this year after a year’s absence due to lack of funding is the summer youth street ball program. It will kick off Monday and continue through July 16, thanks to funds from the $1.46 million Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative grant awarded to the Vicksburg Warren School District last summer.

Project director Sherrie Williams said the grant will provide about $9,500 to the program, allowing the police department to purchase sports equipment and refreshments as well as provide a gym and wages for two police officers.

“Last year when we didn’t have it, the crime rate was high,” program director and police Sgt. Jackie Johnson said. “Our expectation is to lower the juvenile crime rate and to bring the kids together as one.”

“We’re excited about street ball this summer,” said juvenile investigator Randy Naylor, also a Warren County constable. “In the past, it has kept a lot of kids out of the streets. They’re in a safe environment program under the supervision of certified police officers.”

Johnson said two juvenile investigators, police officers, school resource officers, VPD clerks and staff members and volunteers will help with the nearly 400 students who attend street ball each night.

In addition to competition, the program features guest speakers and movie nights. Youths 7 to 12 will be at the Warren Central High School gym and those ages 13 to 18 will be at the Vicksburg Junior High School gym from 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.

Also under the SSHS grant, Williams said a summer boys and girls club has been established in conjunction with the police department to help students with issues under a project called Project SYNC, which stands for school and youth in a network community.

“The grant focuses on violence prevention, gun prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, conflict resolution, alcohol and drug prevention and gang resistance,” Williams said. She said behavioral specialists, coaches, counselors and outside speakers have been recruited to teach and interact with students in the program set to kick off Monday and run through June 25. So far, over 115 students have been signed up.

“I believe this will make a big difference,” Williams added.

Also kicking off a summer camp for kids is the Central Mississippi Prevention Services.

“We’ll help with (students’) academic skills and social skills,” facility director Joseph Johnson said. “We’ll have certified teachers work with them. We’ll do reviews with them of the grade they just completed.”

The program, open to all students ages 5 to 14, will have academic and life skills classes as well as field trips around town. The facility on Grove Street also has a basketball court, tabletop games, computers and movies for its participants.

In conjunction with the police department, City of Vicksburg and Vicksburg Housing Authority, the CMPS has established a satellite program at the main office of the VHA on Elizabeth Circle.

“We’re trying to have a satellite program to make sure our students and parents are engaged,” Johnson said. Students interested in the program, set to begin Monday, must register with the CMPS.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, students ages 5 to 17 can participate in a myriad of activities and classes.

To keep students’ interest, Johnson said an incentive program was developed.

“By their participation, they can win movie certificates or gift cards,” he said. “It will be up to them to tell us what they want to win.”