City leaders discuss park safety with concerned citizens

Temperatures climbed near 100 degrees in the mid-day sun on Wednesday at North Park.

A small canopy shaded a few people and a podium, as a gathering of about 50 people collected around the shade.

A pair of groups were there, and they were both willing to deal with the heat in hopes of having effective communication.

One group was City of Jackson leadership including Mayor Scott Conger and a number of his leadership staff, Parks and Recreation Director Tony Black, Police Chief Thom Corley and members of his leadership staff within the department.

The other group was a made of frustrated parents and citizens who wanted answers and action.

“I’ve lived here close to the park for 23 years, and there have been times when it’s been bad, but the last three years – and really this year even more – has been as bad as it’s been,” said Johnnie Scott. “I’ve called time after time after time when there’s loud music or people parked out here doing drugs or a drug deal going down, and sometimes someone comes and sometimes they don’t.

“Just last week, I called down there to the police department and I told the person on the phone that sometime something catastrophic is going to happen in this park, and they’re going to wish they’d done more.”

That “something catastrophic” happened Monday evening.

The park had a number of teams from Jackson Soccer Club practicing, and one round of teams were wrapping up practice while another round was getting ready to start their practice.

A few cars not associated with the soccer club were in the parking lot furthest away from the park entrance on Highland Avenue, which is next to the fields where a couple of teams were practicing.

A fight broke out among some of the people at those cars, which led to an estimated seven shots being fired from a gun.

One parent in attendance recalled the event, saying it happened in close to the exact spot where the canopy was set up. The witness account said most parents were with the team on the field, and they could see and hear some activity in the parking lot, but not a clear view because there is a slight drop-off from the field to the parking lot.

The parent called 9-1-1 while getting their own children with them and any others nearby until the cars left the parking lot and the park.

Conger, Corley and Black all discussed Wednesday how they were raised in Jackson and grew up playing in parks and spent time with their own children in parks.

They told those in attendance how park safety is a priority for them, and they’re taking a look at safety measures and what they can do to ensure safety in the parks.

There are three measures they’re taking.

Corley said patrol around all parks in the city will increase for the foreseeable future to deter any similar activity or unruly gatherings.

They also plan to install more security cameras at the parks. Corley and Conger confirmed these cameras will have blue lights with them to make sure they’re visible to anyone in the parks similar to the cameras that are in place at all Jackson-Madison County Schools.

Black said the City is having more lights installed in the park, and he pointed out a temporary one that had been brought in on Tuesday. After the press conference, he and one of his assistants were meeting with a person to install the lights to figure out how many were needed and where they needed to go.

They’ll also install gates at the back parking lot since it’s rarely used during the day to discourage young people being in that area when they have no reason to be there.

Black said the plan is for them to continue to assess and figure out ways to ensure safety in the parks, but he also asked for help from the public because it takes more than the police department to ensure safety throughout any city.

“We need to know when things are going on, so please call the police and let us know, and we’ll make sure this park is safe and have a safe place for their kids can come,” Black said.

“Crime isn’t only deterred by police, because it thrives in the darkness,” Conger said. “I think of what Shirlene Mercer would’ve done. She wouldn’t have shied away from the issue.

“She would’ve figured out what to do to meet the situation head on. And we’re starting weekly park rallies to pull our people together and foster more public engagement for the parks and park safety.”

Some of the soccer players’ parents were at the press conference on Wednesday, including JSC leadership.

Lindsay Young was one of those parents.

“I appreciate all of you coming out and talking with us about this, but I hate that it took this incident Monday night where I’m laying on top of 18-year-old kids to keep them safe for something to be done,” Young said to the city leaders. “And I’m going to hold you to your word because you said good people deter people with bad intentions, and I’ve done my part protecting children and being out here to watch what’s going on.

“So we need you to do what you said you’re going to do.”

JSC had already announced Monday night they were suspending all organization activities at North Park.

“This is where we practice because it’s the only place in Jackson with this many fields, but now we’ve got to figure out where we’ll practice,” said Kurt Mullins, the president of JSC. “And Union University has stepped up and said their facilities are available to us, and all the private schools have too.

“But we’re in a situation where we were cautious about coming to North Park because of things we’d seen happening, and our people kept calling and calling JPD, and we might get a response or someone come by or we might not.”

Mullins said Monday’s shooting was the signal to the JSC leadership that they had to do something definitive.

“We’re not only pulling our practices, but other teams in our state association will play games here, like when a team from Nashville and one from Memphis want to meet in the middle for a game, they’ll sometimes play here,” Mullins said. “And we hold two big tournaments at this park every year, so this is causing a loss of revenue for the city because we don’t feel like our parks are safe.”

Corley said in the press conference that JPD is investigating two incidents from Monday night, the other one in which minor was shot at the intersection of Rockwell Drive and Reynolds Drive near North Side High School, less than two miles away from the park.

Corley said he couldn’t confirm yet a connection between the two incidents, but some of the parents in attendance said the vehicle images released by Crimestoppers on Tuesday regarding the shooting were the same vehicles they saw in the parking lot on Monday.

The shooting was close enough to the high school that JMCSS officials discussed the matter during their athletics committee meeting on Tuesday. Deputy Superintendent Rickey Catlett and chief security officer Tim Gilmer said they’ll assess their own security plans in those situations and revise them however needed for situations like what happened, because the shots fired in the shooting could be heard at North Side while a girls’ soccer match was going on.

Johnnie Scott was hopeful after Wednesday’s press for the future based on his past experiences.

“There was a time when things got bad here before, and [former JPD Chief Rick Staples] had a press conference here like this one today,” Scott said. “And things got better for a few years. Things were good until three years ago or so.”

Conger had a parting message for anyone wanting to be in a city park with ill intentions.

“If you come to one of our parks to cause harm and disrupt peaceful environments, know this: Crime will not be tolerated in our parks,” Conger said. “These spaces are designed for the enjoyment of our citizens. Law enforcement and community cooperation will ensure that any criminal activity will be met with swift and decisive action to protect our public spaces.”

Brandon Shields,