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New Jackson chief reverses city's course on secrecy about crime statistics

In a meeting with reporters in December, new Jackson Police Chief Malcolm McMillin made crystal clear his policy toward providing police information to media.

"We're not going to have any (crud) over here about what you are entitled to," he said. "I've had good media relations for 16 years and I'm not going to change that now."

McMillin is in his fourth month as chief of the state's largest municipal police department, but he brings to the job the savvy of a seasoned politician. That's to be expected, since he also is the elected sheriff of Hinds County.

McMillin said his administration will be transparent and requests for information will be filled in a timely basis as long as the information does not jeopardize an investigation.

"Want to check the next day to see how many calls we had or how many complaints we had?" he said. "That will be available to you as soon as we compile that. You can have it anytime you want it."

Attorney Leonard Van Slyke, an expert in Mississippi open records law, said McMillin has built a reputation as one of the state's most effective law enforcement officers, partly on his success in being open and communicating with the public.

But Van Slyke said the dramatic shift in policy indicates a fundamental weakness in Mississippi's open records law, especially where police records are concerned. Broad, vaguely written passages exempting "law enforcement" from the state statute make it easy for local governments to stonewall citizens and media, he said.

Government transparency should rest on the law, not one official's personality, Van Slyke said.

"It is imperative that the Legislature repeal the general (law enforcement) exemption or at least (change) the way that it is being interpreted to where it means that any law enforcement records is exempt," he said. "We clearly need to know whether a crime has been committed in our neighborhood."

McMillin's openness is a stark departure from past practice. Under former Police Chief Shirlene Anderson, The Clarion-Ledger spent the better portion of two years fighting for every scrap of information, including such basic information as the weekly tally of major crimes reported.

During the final year of former Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr.'s administration, the newspaper had published crime statistics every Monday. That stopped in 2005, about five months into Mayor Frank Melton's tenure.

Melton - who defeated Johnson with promises to reduce crime - told The Clarion-Ledger there were internal concerns over the accuracy of the statistics and the city was devising a better method of compiling crime stats that would give a truer picture of crime in the capital city. Melton even refused to turn statistics over to members of the City Council.

In May 2006, The Clarion-Ledger and other media outlets in the city obtained leaked crime reports that showed a 16.4 percent increase in crime since Melton took office. In the same month, Melton took the standoff a step further, tearing up several of the newspaper's requests for city records.

Speaking on a local talk radio program, Melton taunted the newspaper about its requests: "If you send some more over there, I will tear them up."

Melton defended his actions by claiming the newspaper's coverage of crime in the city was inaccurate and harassing.

The city settled the dispute and was ordered to pay $13,000 in legal fees.

But it took several more months before the city agreed to release weekly crime statistics. Recent reports from the city show a decrease in crime from 2006.

Clarion-Ledger Executive Editor Ronnie Agnew said the newspaper has a duty to fulfill its role as a government watchdog, so he had little choice but to bring suit against the city.

"I still find it troubling that we've had to go to such levels to receive information that in most states is accessible to anyone who requests it," he said. "Government officials should learn that they are elected by the people to serve the people, not hide information from them."

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