When communities are suddenly gripped with intense or emotional issues, especially if it’s an outbreak of violent crime, the natural response often is for citizens and community leaders to gather for some type of town hall meeting as a first step toward tackling the problem.
Unfortunately, sometimes fear and anger — justified as they may be — take over those forums and they descend into a visceral airing of grievances where few solutions are presented or heard.
In Starkville on Thursday night, less than 48 hours after a shooting at the McKee Park basketball court, city leaders met at the park’s pavilion with more than 100 citizens to discuss how to make the area safer. What ensued was honest, measured dialogue and a model for what a community meeting should be. Though, one thing it could have used was a mic system so the speakers could be better heard — something those in attendance noted to city leaders several times.
This was no singing circle meeting either. Everyone who came wanted answers, and some leveled pointed criticisms at the mayor and other city officials.
Among the most prominent were questions of why these concerns haven’t already been addressed. Tuesday night’s shooting, which happened while youth league baseball games were being played on fields a few hundred yards away, was the second shooting incident at McKee Park since 2019. Park regulars complained of late-night crowds and drug use around the basketball court. The shooting, according to police, spawned from gambling at the court.
As one youth league baseball coach put it, the problem didn’t start Tuesday night.
City leaders came with proposed solutions in hand, ranging from utilizing the police department’s burgeoning reserve division for increased patrols at the park to adding surveillance cameras capable of reading license plates and using gates to bar road access to the property after 10 p.m.
For now, the basketball and tennis courts will be closed when rec league games are being played, a measure the parks and recreation department implemented Wednesday.
People may have left the meeting still angry or dissatisfied with those solutions, but everyone who wanted to speak had their chance, and the event was mutually respectful.
That’s what it takes to bring positive change to a bad situation. Another recent example we’ve seen was in Columbus, where Southside residents approached the police chief in a public forum asking for, among other things, more transparency, including broader access to crime data. The police department is working diligently to provide that information, which will be a great service to the entire community.
It’s refreshing to see examples in our area where citizens and leaders seem to be working together earnestly to deal with tough issues, rather than ignoring them or blaming each other for them.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.