Tytus Brown mentors kids at McKee Park every week through his mentorship program, Brothers Against Violence.
While he and his kids were not at the park Tuesday night when a drive-by shooting occurred just after 9 p.m., he said they had been there just a short hour prior. He said the situation upset him because he aims to prevent violence at the same place violence had occurred.
“(We’re just) trying to have fun bringing basketball back,” Brown said at a Thursday night town hall meeting at the park. “The city needs something to look up to. I feel bad that these people are coming into town and bringing guns.”
Starkville Police Department arrested five Columbus men Tuesday night for the shooting. Starkville’s Parks and Recreation Department announced Wednesday all basketball and tennis courts would be closed during league play. Ward 1 Alderman Ben Carver called for closing the courts down completely, though there was no appetite for permanent closure at Thursday’s meeting.
Starkville city officials — led by Ward 2 Alderman Sandra Sistrunk — held the town hall at the park to discuss safety in the area as a result of Tuesday night’s shooting. Sistrunk presented short-term and long-term plans for creating a safer environment for the parks in the area.
“One of the things that’s become very apparent to me … is that we need to rethink the way we manage our parks operations to include the idea of crowd control,” Sistrunk said. “That’s not something we’ve typically had to think about in the parks. … We’ve never had really uncontrollable crowds in the park before.”
Almost 200 people were on one of the basketball courts when Tuesday night’s shooting happened. Sistrunk, along with Starkville Police Chief Mark Ballard, said they are exploring the idea of “force multipliers,” supplementing additional staff to the parks when necessary.
Ballard said he may begin to utilize Starkville Police Department’s Reserve Division for crowd control and during peak times of the park.
McKee Park’s hours of operation, and all parks’ hours in Starkville, are 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Sistrunk also said city officials plan to consider camera upgrades, including technology like license plate readers, for Starkville parks. She said getting a gate for McKee Park is in discussion as well.
A long-term plan for generating safety, Sistrunk said, is to do complete redesigns of the area parks including McKee Park, J. L. King Senior Memorial Park and George Evans Park. The redesign of McKee will contain new components that more residents can take advantage of, such as a dog park and new age-appropriate basketball courts to divide children and teenagers from the adults.
“Once the baseball and softball fields have been moved over to Cornerstone (Park), we’re going to be doing a redesign of this park,” Sistrunk said. “In that redesign, we’ll be adding some activities that we don’t currently have here. We’ll be looking at how groups interact with each other and making sure that we don’t have any conflicts.”
Many residents who attended the town hall had concerns not just about Tuesday’s incident but about the continuous string of crime Starkville has seen over the past month.
Starkville resident Joseph Elinburg, who coaches 9-year-olds, was upset that a shooting had to happen for city representatives to take action. He said 200 people on a basketball court at once is a problem.
“Everyone has seen the problems other than city officials,” Elinburg said. “You’re seeing them now, but the chief of police failed, the mayor failed, you (Sistrunk) failed as the alderman of this ward, and now we’re trying to find solutions to fix it. We’d be singing a different song if there was a kid laying dead.”
Sistrunk responded saying that the city is fortunate no one was hurt or injured in the incident.
Elinburg rebutted, saying two years ago another shooting occurred at the park where someone was shot, and he did not understand why the park does not have extensive security patrolling it.
“I’m out here every day with my daughter,” Elinburg said. “We might see an officer every 30 minutes, maybe. What happened? Where’s the disconnect?”
Another resident, Kathleen Burnette, lives in the neighborhood next to McKee Park. She said her concern was not when league sports were going on, but on Saturdays and Sundays when “there’s not as many eyes and ears out there” and fewer patrols. She said once Cornerstone Park, a new sportsplex coming to town, is built, there will be even fewer people in the area.
Sistrunk said along with the park redesign, the city will make sure to have more park personnel in the area.
Cliff Thames, another Starkville resident, was upset about the temporary closure of the tennis courts during league play. He said because of the limited times to use the courts now, he will have to readjust his schedule for his daughter’s tennis lessons.
“I’m getting collected into something that has nothing to do with my 7-year-old little girl,” Thames said.
Director of Parks and Recreation Brandon Doherty told Thames there are other options for tennis play such as courts at J. L. King Park and Starkville High School. Although this may seem a bit annoying, changes need to be made to ensure the safety of the city, he argued.
“We’re trying to do everything that is legal and ethical to make sure that there is quality across the whole thing and not just single groups of people are getting special treatment,” Doherty said. “That’s unfortunate because that means we have to change a little and be flexible in how we look at things.”
Sistrunk said the board of aldermen would meet with all city department heads, including Doherty, at their budget meeting next week to discuss potential personnel hires. Some residents expressed wanting to see more park staff to act as mentors like Tytus Brown does with his program.
Brown said he initially created Brothers Against Violence as a way to help Starkville’s youth stay out of trouble and have someone to rely on. Every week, he brings kids of all ages out to McKee Park to play basketball and provides them with food and drinks, all of which he funds out of his own pocket.
He said the same people who were involved in the shooting Tuesday came to the park a week prior during his program meeting time.
“Those guys actually a week ago came out here, and they came out here and had guns…,” Brown said. “I told them, ‘You are able to come out here, but you can’t bring those guns out here. If you don’t put the guns up or leave with the guns, then I’m going to call the police to come and escort you out of here.’”
Doherty said he gained some great ideas and solutions from the residents who gave their insight at the meeting and plans on researching ways to implement them.
“I think we got a lot of great information from the community,” Doherty said. “I think there are some great ideas that we need to go back and take a look at because everything is on the table. My plan is to go back and reach out to some people that met with me and take these ideas and see what we can do.”