Jackson mayoral candidates explain how they plan to keep the Hub City safe

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JACKSON, Tenn. — Ballots will be cast in the race for Mayor of Jackson in just more than five months. Currently, it is a three-man race — Dr. James Baxter, Lowe Finney and incumbent Jerry Gist. Curbing crime is considered “the” issue for candidates. The already hot-button issue was hurtled to the forefront in October. That is when Mayor Jerry Gist, who is seeking a third term, fired Police Chief Gill Kendrick and replaced him, at least on an interim basis, with Capt. Julian Wiser. We sat down individually with all three candidates to talk about their plans to curb crime. QUESTION: Do you believe it’s fair that crime plays such a large role in this election? Gist: To use the crime issue politically, as I see it, is an indictment on every law enforcement officers in this county. I’m just not going to do that. Finney: I don’t think it’s indictment at all. The officers work hard. They do a good job. But the people of Jackson want to know they’re safe. Baxter: It’s not an indictment. I think that’s a smoke screen. The people of Jackson deserve to be safe. QUESTION: What is your plan to lower crime? Gist: We’ve initiated a couple of things, which have been very, very successful for us. Number one — our Blue Impact. Also a lot of technology including cameras in high crime areas, which we have not had in the past, is now on board and being used. They’ve been in place for six or seven months. So we feel like we have a good plan, and we’re going to continue that. It might need to be tweaked a little bit as we go forward, but we feel like the plan is working, and crime is down overall. We’re going into our fifth month now without a homicide in our city. So I think we’re making some real progress. Finney: While I’m glad we’ve seen some progress over the last few weeks, we needed a plan years ago. To wait until we’re three years into double-digit homicides and it’s election season, I think people want to know why he waited so long. It’s not just a law enforcement issue. It’s a much broader, systematic issue. It’s not enough to just go and catch people — we have to focus on preventing. We have to work with our schools and our nonprofits to reach children early. What we have to do is bring in the community, talk about exactly what Jackson needs and put a plan together that addresses where we want to be in five years, in 10 years. I’ll start on that plan day one. Baxter: I think the perception that the citizens of Jackson have of the police department needs to change. I think when we look at how the African-American community or lower income communities are policed in comparison to other communities, I see disparity. So I think it would help if there were police precincts in every community that makes up the Hub City. This would allow the community to get to know the people in the area. We need to think of ways in which our officers cannot only be seen as law enforcement but as friends in our communities. We’d have to examine the budget, but we’d make it happen. QUESTION: Mayor Gist said the appointment of Julian Wiser as Interim Chief was due to his extensive experience, 13 years, as part of the Jackson Police Department’s Gang Unit. Do you agree with this decision? Baxter: I would have liked to have seen someone more diversified with a background not just limited to gangs. I think it would have been an opportunity for the mayor to appoint an African-American as chief of police, even if it was on an interim basis. I question why the mayor didn’t seek out this same officer seven years ago. Finney: I think when you look at all the problems, it’s not just gang problems. I think you have to ask the mayor why he felt like he had to choose someone who lives outside of Jackson to head the Jackson Police Department. Gist, on his decision: He grew up in the Gang Unit. We need a proactive officer who had been part of the gang culture, knew the gang culture, knew the intelligence behind it, and that’s why Chief Wiser was selected. He is well respected in the department and now can direct personnel. Previously [as captain of the Special Operations Unit] he was restricted to just a number of units. But now all those units are under his direction. QUESTION: When could we expect you to appoint a permanent police chief, if elected? Finney: I would waste no time in finding someone permanent. Gist: I appreciate Chief Wiser accepting the position on an interim basis. This is a test period to see if it’s a good fit for him being chief. Right now, I’d give him a nine out of 10. Baxter: I would look a wide range of personnel and get the input of people throughout the community before making a decision on police chief. QUESTION: Do you believe the next police chief should live in the city of Jackson? (Some believe previous Chief Gill Kendrick took too long to sever ties to his hometown of Brownsville. Interim Chief Wiser grew up in Milan and currently calls Medina home.) Baxter: I believe if you work for the City of Jackson, you should live in the City of Jackson. By living here, the chief could be more effective. It would be imperative that the next chief of police live in the city. Finney: People in Jackson tell me they would like a chief who knows the city, is from the city and reflects the community. I do think it’s important to residents that the chief call Jackson home. Gist: Absolutely, the next permanent police chief will live in the City of Jackson. QUESTION: What kind of experience do you bring to the table when it comes to law enforcement? Gist: I’m a veteran. I was a military policeman. I have that basic experience and understanding of how it works. Baxter: I am an Army veteran, a professional soldier. I’ve also worked for the Tennessee Department of Corrections [for nine years]. I’ve guarded James Earl Ray. I’ve guarded some of the most notorious criminals to ever be committed to the Tennessee Department of Corrections. When it comes down to hands-on approach and dealing with criminals, I’m more experienced than Jerry Gist. Finney: Patrol officers don’t want the mayor hovering over their shoulder every day. It’s not needed. A mayor is supposed to set the tone and put the right leadership in place. QUESTION: What would your role as mayor be in regards to the police department? Baxter: It would involved a strong hand. It would be mandatory that the police chief update me from week to week as to the state of crime in the city. Still, I don’t believe you hire a man to do a job and then you step in and do his job. But he would be held accountable. Gist: My job is to provide them with the tools they need to do their job, to support them, to watch their backs and to encourage them. That’s exactly what I’m going to do. Finney: I believe the mayor sets the tone and expectations for the department and the chief. He also must lay out a clear plan for them to follow. QUESTION: Final thoughts? Gist: I think long term, we can be very, very optimistic about the future of Jackson and us continuing our efforts to reduce crime in the city. Baxter: I think the people of Jackson can evaluate the mayor by simply asking yourself, are you safer now than you were seven years ago? That answer is no. So business as usual is no longer acceptable in Jackson, Tennessee. Finney: The bottom line is Jackson can be a better place to live. That’s what people want. They want a safe community to call home. And that’s what we’re going to work on.

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