NAACP leader claims police targets blacks; chief says no way

Published 9:36 am Monday, January 9, 2017

Statistics on traffic citations issued by Vicksburg police officers during 2015 indicates the police department is targeting blacks in the city, the president of the Warren County NAACP claims.

Police Chief Walter Armstrong said the complaint is unfounded.

“In my seven-and-a-half years working here, I have never, never, had anyone to imply that African- Americans or blacks are being targeted by Vicksburg police officers,” he said.

NAACP President John Shorter said the NAACP’s complaint “pretty much goes back to the beginning of the Laurence Leyens administration, where we were getting complaints.

“The citizens felt they were being targeted; the blacks were getting targeted with the citations, road blocks at the way into their neighborhood or at the outskirts of black neighborhoods.”

According to information Shorter received from the city through the Freedom of Information Act, 9,702 traffic citations were issued in 2015, and 6,790, or 70 percent, were issued to black drivers.

The tickets, he said, ranged from speeding to seatbelt violations, to broken car tag lights.

“I want to say last month, in December, three people over on First Avenue received tickets for parking on the wrong side of the road, and that was created for commercial areas.”

The city has an ordinance requiring cars to parallel park in the direction of traffic, but it does not specify it is for commercial areas.

“Those are tickets people feel are unnecessary or frivolous,” Shorter said. “They generate money.”

He said he and other members have asked the Board of Mayor and Aldermen, Police Chief Walter Armstrong to set guidelines for officers “saying these are the tickets that will be acceptable and not acceptable,” adding they have refused.

“We’re not asking them to not write citations for DUI and reckless driving, we’re talking about guidelines,” he said.

“Our mission is to protect the citizens, and the numbers show blacks are being targeted two ways, they (police) would actually set up the road blocks at those entrances to black neighborhoods. They’ll do a saturation patrol where two or more officers will ride behind each other, and where you might see one officer and not see other and speed up, or you pull somebody over an here comes the next car.”

He also said traffic stops for seatbelt violations have also caused complaints, adding the stops are contradictory because school buses are not required to have seatbelts for students.

“We’ve told them we had no problem with them writing tickets for minors not being in seatbelts or unrestrained child but not to worry about the adults who choose to risk their lives by not wearing a seatbelt.”

Armstrong said 54, or 76.1 percent of the police department’s 71 officers, are African-American, and 15, or 21.1 percent are white. The department also has two Asian officers. Of the white officers, he said, at least five are in a position where they do not write tickets.

“So that would narrow it down (to who would write tickets), and my traffic division officers: Russell Dorsey, who is African-American; Leonce Young, who is African-American; Justin Magloire, who is African-American; and one white officer, Russell Sumrall,” he said.

“So basically, what I would feel comfortable in saying, is the majority of the tickets are being written by African-American officers, because they are the majority and they are in the position to do so, whereas other officers are not for different reasons.”

Vicksburg also has more black residents in the city than white, Armstrong said.

He said most of the traffic problems the police handle are referred to the department by residents.

“We get calls from the citizens, and the majority are African-Americans complaining about speeding, reckless driving, running stop signs, and/or red lights, in their neighborhoods,” he said.

“They’re concerned for the public safety, they’re concerned for their kids. They’re concerned about speeding in school zones. So that is one way that brings our focus in on particular areas, because the calls are coming from citizens who live in those areas.”

He said the department also uses a radar trailer it posts in certain high traffic areas. The trailer contained a computer that records the speed of passing cars on the street, gives an average speed and allows police to determine if enforcement is needed in the areas where the trailer is used.

Armstrong said the department receives grants through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for seatbelt enforcement. Under the program, he said, an officer is stationed in an area to see how many people are wearing their seatbelts. If it is needed, he said, officers go out and do a “blitz,” concentrating on seatbelt violations. He said the information is forwarded to the NHTSA to show how the grant funds are being used.

He said drivers are required to wear seatbelts by state law.

“We don’t have the option of opting out of enforcing the state law,” he said, adding seatbelt use has increased in Vicksburg and across the state because of increased enforcement.

“Stats show the chances of surviving a serious crash is greater if people are restrained,” he said.

“We have never received a complaint such as this from anyone in this community, and at the end of the day, our main concern is public safety for all citizens, regardless of their race or national origin,” Armstrong said, adding the department receives cultural diversity training provided by the FBI.

“Everything we do is transparent and is open to conversation, and I would more than gladly engage anyone at any time about any matter,” he said, adding he will not tolerate abuse by the department’s officer on citizens.  “We have purchased body cameras; everything we do is recorded.”

“Any indication that the Vicksburg police officers are targeting African Americans is unfounded.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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