WATER VALLEY – Police Chief Jason Mangrum was instructed to step up law enforcement in the city during the pandemic, a directive that came during a special meeting called by Mayor Donald Gray and alderpersons to address complaints after hundreds of people gathered at Crawford Sports Complex for foot races Saturday night.
The special meeting was held jointly in city hall and via Zoom videoconference and was the largest virtual board meeting since the city started using Zoom as an option in April. Gray, Police Chief Jason Mangrum, City Attorney Daniel Martin and 18 others including multiple police officers attended the meeting at city hall. Alderpersons Cinnamon Foster, Nicole Folson, Kagan Coughlin and Herbie Rogers along with dozens of citizens tuned in on the Zoom app.
As Gray opened the meeting, he instructed Mangrum to provide an overview of the events that led to Saturday night’s event.
“I am going to let Jason tell you what occurred, why it occurred and how it occurred,” Gray explained.
Mangrum explained that a week before the Crawford event, a group of individuals were holding foot races in the area of Davidson Street and he received a complaint about cars blocking the roads and loud noise.
“Myself and another officer took the time to ask the people to clear the roadway and make it where traffic could flow. All the people in attendance complied, they moved their cars and kept the roadways open,” the chief continued. “While I was speaking to a couple of people there, I suggested that if they are going to have foot races, to find a new location that is safer than Davidson Street, on a public road,” Mangrum continued. “I mentioned one possibility was the Crawford Sports Complex, because it is open for running or walking on the track.”
Mangrum said that last Saturday the foot races were held at the sports complex and the crowd was larger than anyone expected.
“So I tried to control the crowd, to make sure everybody was safe and everybody was good. Later on the crowd got even larger and I was asked by the mayor to shut it down,” Mangrum continued. “As they are leaving the park, I get another call that they have moved over to the Charlie Harris (street) area. Once we get the crowd cleared from the park, we moved to Charlie Harris (street) to start asking them to leave and go home because the crowd was larger than anybody thought it was going to be and it was violating the governor’s order of 100 people,” the chief said.
“The concern was the crowd was much larger that the chief ever thought it would be. He thought it would be local people,” Gray added. “Fortunately the people did behave themselves, there were no injuries. I wasn’t in favor of that large of crowd… they were violating the governor’s order,” the mayor continued. “We are all in agreement that we can’t have crowds this large right now. We just put a mask order in place asking people to wear masks and the governor has told us not to have crowds of more than 100. Until this pandemic has passed, we will have to follow the governor’s orders,” the mayor added before opening the meeting up for input.
Ward One Alderman Kagan Coughlin was first to speak.
“I am glad nobody was hurt. If we weren’t in a pandemic, I think that is kind of great to have an activity that costs nothing and everybody can have a good time. There were a lot of things that were wrong with this, a lot of folks who live in that neighborhood did not appreciate that activity…. We just need to do better,” Coughlin said.
The next input came from Lavert Hawkins.
“If the police were there and there is more than 100 people, then they should have dispersed the crowd,” Hawkins noted.
“I think the problem is when you have two officers and that big of a crowd came that quick. They did the safe thing, they policed the area and then started asking people to leave,” Gray said.
“So you are saying they did the safe thing. By allowing them to continue racing and the crowd steady gathering… most of them don’t have a mask on in the middle of the pandemic, and that was the safe thing to do?” Hawkins asked.
“I am not talking about the pandemic. That was not safe, I agree 100 percent. I am talking about none of the people got physically hurt during that time,” Gray countered.
“As far as it being physical, I am sure that will show in another two or three weeks,” Hawkins said about the potential spread of virus.
“The pandemic, you are right. I am talking about any violence,” Gray said.
“The people weren’t there to cause violence, they were there to race. What I am saying is the police have the responsibility, if the people are not adhering to the guidelines mandated by the State of Mississippi, the police have the responsibility to disperse that crowd. If he needs help, he has resources to get help. He could have got on the radio and could have called for somebody,” Hawkins said.
“I agree that things weren’t done 100 percent the way I would have liked it, or you would have liked it. But I think they used the very best judgment they could use at that point in time,” Gray said.
“But that is two weeks in a row,” Hawkins said.
“That is why we are here to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Gray explained.
“But it has happened two weeks already. None of us know just how severe this thing is going to be at this point. But it shouldn’t have happened the first time,” Hawkins continued. “This happened in the black neighborhood. I feel like the chief allowed it to happen in the black neighborhood with the black kids. If they congregate like that, make them go home. That is your job. It didn’t affect anybody else in town. If it turns out to be a mass infection, it is going to happen in the African American neighborhood. Y’all need to take the same seriousness in your own neighborhoods that you take in ours,” Hawkins stressed.
“We do,” Gray answered.
The next input came from Alderman-at-Large Herbie Rogers.
“I know there were a lot of mistakes made during the last couple of weeks. What is your opinion on how we are going to move forward, mayor?” Rogers asked.
“Jason and I have already spoken. He will be communicating with some of these young guys who are putting these together, letting them know this cannot happen,” Gray answered. “We are not going to allow another event like this to happen as long as we have this pandemic. Even after this pandemic, we will not allow this to happen in neighborhoods. We do have places for events, those events would have to be requested and approved. That is the way I see us handling this in the future,” Gray answered.
Following another call from Gray for input, Lenair Person also voiced criticism similar to Hawkins’ concerns.
“My problem, why was it diverted to that community?” Person asked about the crowd moving from Crawford Sports Complex to the Charlie Harris (area) last Saturday. “Black people are dying faster than anybody with this. And he diverted it over there,” Person continued, adding that social media posts indicated the chief allowed the group to move to Charlie Harris apartments area.
“Why didn’t you take it over to the country club or central street park?” Person asked.
“I did not approve moving it to Charlie Harris, I asked them to leave Crawford,” Mangrum countered.
“A lot of people are making this out to be a black and white thing. This is not a black and white thing, this is a health thing. I have people with health issues and I am going to tell you mayor, that is a bunch of crap to send them over there,” Person continued. Person also said the mayor mentioned references that the event also included gambling during the races.
Ward Four Alderperson Nicole Person was the next city official to speak.
“This is my community. This is my neighborhood. This is my family, where I live. I am not happy, I am not happy at all. I have a lot more that I want to say, but I am not going to say it on Zoom,” Folson said.
“When the precedent has been set that the Water Valley police chief is cool. How are they going to turn that around?” Folson asked.
“We are hoping that cooler heads prevail when we tell them that this is just not our ordinance, this is the Governor’s order,” Gray said about preventing similar events in the future.
In the remaining time during the 45-minute meeting, city officials took a two-step approach to minimize the potential for another incident. Gray and alderpersons will have more oversight on the permitting process for events, which flow through the police department. The second step was a directive for stronger law enforcement in the city.
“If we know some event has been planned here, whether it has been approved or not, getting to that and stopping it,” Gray said about handling future events. “And telling them that it will have consequences. If you break these laws, these ordinances, there will be consequences including arrests,” Gray continued.
“So up to now, it has been my understanding that our board’s directive to the police department and the chief has been to enforce the laws of our community and our nation, but take a gentle hand when it is warranted. We are a small town, we know each other and we live with each other and at times a warning is something that can be done,” Coughlin explained. “I believe we have been encouraging our police force to try that tactic before taking a hard hand.”
But Coughlin said a change may be in order during the pandemic.
“That we stop being friendly when we are putting other peoples’ lives at risk. But I think we need to choose to make that an order, because it has not been the direction we have given our police force before,” Coughlin continued.
“I think you are right and speaking with Jason, and we have several officers here, I don’t want this community to think we are profiling anyone at all. This is not about race, as Lavert and others have spoken here. It is not about race at all. I don’t want us to have some of the problems that other places have had about race. Because we are Water Valley, we are all one and I don’t care what color you are. But if we do see someone breaking the law, they are going to have to pay the consequences. That will be the order to the chief, from this point on, and to the officers. So we will not have this problem,” Gray stressed. “We are going to enforce the law and the governor’s order to the letter.”
City officials also opted not to take an overall punitive approach for citizens and shut down the city parks again.
“We really need to rely on each other to be considerate of each other’s health,” Coughlin said. “We can try to craft more policy to lock things down. But we are just going to be chasing our own tails if people just aren’t behaving in a way that takes into consideration their neighbors,” Coughlin said.
“Sometimes the more rules you put in place, the more kickback you get. But I know we have to have rules and order. The walking track is used every morning and some brave it in the afternoons,” Gray said about the heat.