Members of the community Crime Prevention Task Force had plenty of suggestions for community improvements when they met for their regular meeting at Trotter Convention Center Thursday night: from planning town hall-style meetings with community members, to partnering with organizations like Boys and Girls Club to hold events and recreational activities for youth, to hosting a community-wide festival celebrating Columbus.
But it was Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Cherie Labat who reminded the task force’s members, led by chair and District 5 Lowndes County Supervisor Leroy Brooks, why they were there in the first place. She said she and Columbus High School teachers had spent the week dealing with two seniors who were arrested for a drive-by shooting at McKee Park in Starkville Tuesday night.
“A child can’t go from being at the school on Tuesday to being locked up in Starkville two days later, and we be OK with that,” Labat said. “… I need people that lose sleep over that. I need people that are focused on kids, are focused on their facilities, are focused on giving them quality education, are focused on moving the city like so many people in this community are trying to do.”
Brooks and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith formed the task force earlier this year to address growing crime issues in the city and surrounding communities, many of which law enforcement authorities have said are committed by and against teenagers and people in their early 20s.
Brooks says the task force currently has 35 members split into committees that focus on efforts like education — the committee which Labat chairs — youth and recreation, community revitalization, community promotion and law enforcement enhancement.
“There’s something about this group that just has got me excited,” he said. “We may very well be the catalyst for changing dynamics of some of what’s happening in Columbus. … We’ve got quality people here who are dedicated. … We’ve had a good group and a very engaged group.”
Ideally, the task force meets once per month — Brooks said last month’s meeting was canceled due to weather — with the individual committees holding more meetings in between. He encouraged each committee to come up with specific recommendations to present the city council by June.
The committee heads who presented said they’ve been brainstorming events, partnerships and other ways to engage with the community and especially kids and teenagers. Columbus Parks and Recreation Director Greg Lewis, who heads the youth and recreation committee, said the committee has reached out to the Boys and Girls Club, the Columbus Rotary Club, The Father’s Child Ministry and other youth organizations to gauge interest in hosting a community-wide youth event inviting kids to share their interests and suggest activities they’d like to have in Columbus.
“Us in this room, we can make all the suggestions that we want to, but we still need to get the youth together to find out what it is that they want to do, what it is that they will participate in,” he said. “… Making the youth a part of that process will greatly aid in crime prevention. Recreation programs, period, are unconsciously crime prevention because … if I know you’re in the building, in the field … you have something positive to do.”
Lewis said the committee also plans to recruit coaches and volunteers to work with kids, and plans to have a date for the youth-wide event by June.
Brooks shared concerns that youth recreation, and particularly sports, have become much more racially segregated in Lowndes County since the dissolution of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreational Authority in 2017. He pointed out there are almost no white children playing sports at Propst Park and almost no Black kids playing sports at Lake Lowndes. He said he assumes the same in Caledonia.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong for elected officials to come back and say, ‘We made a hell of a bad mistake. We should have never split it up, we need to try and get back together. We need to make sure that these children are not caught up in a segregated kind of situation,’” he said.
Nicole Clinkscales said the community revitalization committee, which she heads, came up with four goals: how to frame Columbus in a way that’s appealing to both residents and visitors; plans to do a ride-along through the city with Columbus Police Chief Fred Shelton to see which areas suffer from blight and get a better sense of the whole city; come up with ways to address housing and dilapidation; and work with the parks and recreation department and committee to give residents something to do.
One of the suggestions they plan to recommend to the city council is hiring a grant writer, either as a full-time position or simply someone they can contract with, to help apply for grants for housing programs, she said.
In particular, she said, she wants to host a festival or other large event for everyone in the city to celebrate Columbus, ideally at a “centralized location” where everyone feels comfortable, such as the Lowndes County Soccer Complex.
Labat, when reporting on the education committee which includes teachers and school board members, primarily spoke about the school district’s efforts to promote child literacy in pre-K and kindergarten programs. Currently, teachers are working with Mississippi Department of Education officials to implement programs and lesson plans to get young children reading and their parents engaged in their education, she and Fairview Elementary teacher Roselyn Rainey said.
Shelton, who heads the law enforcement enhancement committee, updated the task force on his efforts with local business analyst James Westby to compile crime statistics and publish them in a special software that breaks them down by time, date and location on a map of Columbus. The department will turn that data over to Mississippi Office of Homeland Security, and Shelton added he hopes to make the data available to the public on the department’s social media pages within the next few days.
Brooks said he thought the committees had good ideas, but said it would take more input from the community to implement them. In particular, he said, he plans to invite Smith and city council members to the task force meetings. (Ward 4 Councilman Pierre Beard Sr. attended Thursday’s meeting.)
“They need to be here because they’re going to be the catalyst to help with some of these things,” he said.