On Jan. 6, a 9-year-old child named Lasang Kemp Jr. was shot and killed in a car on Santa Anita Drive in Starkville.
In the words of Starkville Police Department Chief Mark Ballard, it was a tragedy the community felt. Even more, it was a tragedy he felt.
"I have young children. Many of our officers here are parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and it hits home. That's one that follows you. When you're in your yard, it follows you. When you wake up at night, it follows you. When you wake up in the day. What can you do better? What can you do more of?" Ballard said.
The shooting of Kemp comes during a period of increased gun violence not only in Starkville, but across the nation.
Ballard said he has not seen levels of gun violence this high since he started working in the Starkville police force over two decades ago.
According to The Trace, a nonpartisan online newsroom dedicated to covering gun violence in the U.S., recently released data shows gun violence hit an all-time high in 2020.
Many news outlets, including Al Jazeera and The New York Times, correlate the rise of violent gun crime with the pandemic. They postulate that school and work closures, stay-at-home orders and social unrest create a propensity for violence.
Captain Brett Watson of the Oktibbeha County Sheriff's Office disagrees.
"If you go back and look historically and just take the past five years' data here in Oktibbeha County, I think you'll see that the rise was beginning well before COVID ever came on the scene," Watson said.
SPD Chief Ballard agreed, saying he has been seeing a steady increase in gun violence since 2014.
But what is contributing to this rash of shootings? If not the pandemic, then what?
The answer, at least in Starkville, is multi-faceted.
Watson gave several reasons he has observed for the spike in gun violence. First, he mentioned a nationwide push via criminal justice reform groups for no pretrial incarceration, low bonds and lighter sentences. Basically, these are initiatives that work to keep low-level offenders out of jail, citing overall benefit to families and economic, social and mental well-being. However, Watson believes an unintended consequence of this effort is repeat criminals being released when they would not have been previously.
Watson likened criminal justice in the U.S. to a pendulum.
"What we're trying to hope for is getting to a happy medium, right? We want to make sure everybody's treated right, fairly and according to the law, and at the same time we want to protect the citizens. So as we try to get that, to hit that goal, I think sometimes we swing one way or swing the other, and it has unintended consequences," Watson said.
Chief Ballard agreed, mentioning similar issues with the court system after an arrest is made.
"The apprehensions are there; the arrests are there. What we have to have at some stage of the game is accountability, and I know that's not necessarily popular, but it is crime, it has to be illegal," Ballard said.
Both Ballard and Watson noted that much of the recent gun violence is related to repeat offenders, stolen weapons and juveniles.
With gun ownership up and Mississippi being a state with a firm belief in personal gun rights, Ballard said it is of the utmost importance for citizens who legally own guns to be responsible in protecting their firearms. Most auto burglaries do not involve breaking windows, just checking handles for unlocked cars.
Ultimately, Ballard said, the violence comes down to "the gods of the street:" guns, drugs and cash. For instance, the case of 9-year-old Lasang Kemp Jr. involved elements of all three—and the collateral damage was the loss of a young, innocent life.
But local law enforcement is not sitting back on their heels. The sheriff's office has increased patrols in apartment and housing complexes where gun theft is occurring, hoping to address one of the root issues. The city police department is embracing "21st century policing" with the implementation of their Fusus camera registry program. This new program encourages private citizens and business to register their cameras with the police department so officers can have instant access to footage and quickly investigate incidents, creating a comprehensive map of the city composed of many cameras.
"In 36 of our 39 crimes in the past several years of major crimes, those cameras have played an integral role in developing the leads, confirming alibis and providing extremely important information for our investigative teams," Ballard said.
SPD also installed cameras with blinking red and blue lights at several intersections across town, which are meant to be a visual preventative telling criminals "don't try it."
Starkville Mayor Lynn Spruill mentioned that many of these violent offenders are not from the city. Starkville's entertainment district and other features attract people from surrounding areas. As the city continues to grow, this phenomenon will continue to grow as well. Ballard said the implementation of cameras is a way to anticipate that issue and stay ahead of it.
While the police department is doing all they can to protect their community and prevent further shootings, Ballard said there are root factors that have to be addressed by other parts of society.
"We're limited as just a profession in what we can do, because there's so many bigger issues that it can't fall just on the shoulders of law enforcement itself," Ballard said.
Education, especially on the dangers of drugs and addiction, can go a long way in removing one of the factors that so often contributes to violence.
Spruill said through investment in the police force and cooperation with local businesses, Starkville is constantly working to minimize any threat to its citizens.
"We are doing everything we can to make sure that our citizens feel safe and that our presence is felt and that those who are coming into town to do things that are contrary to the best interest of our citizens are going to be caught and dealt with and swiftly," Spruill said.
Ballard said even students can get involved in fostering a safer community.
"I think that there's a lot of opportunity, especially the resources and the talents that the students bring for mentorship, especially within our local school system, our local community, groups that are out there … Secure your weapons, get involved, be a part of the solution," Ballard said.