by Robin Kemp
After an intense discussion at its January 11 meeting, the Jonesboro City Council decided it would not permanently shut down the basketball courts at Lee Street Park. However, the courts are closed until February 1 for what Mayor Joy Day described as a “cooling off period.”
Councilman Ed Wise had requested the matter be added to the agenda after at least one incident of shots fired was reported on December 22, 2020.
During the meeting, Wise said, “Obviously, there’s been some serious problems at the basketball courts of late, gunfire. You’ve heard from a lot of the residents that are here. They’re afraid to sit on their front porch. There’s been other problems, as well, trash, et cetera, et cetera. There has kind of been a constant source of problems.”
On December 22, Jonesboro Police responded to a shots fired call. They found three 9mm and .three 40 caliber casings and spoke to witnesses who said they’d heard shots.
One girl said a man carried another man off the court afterwards, but that she didn’t know whether the second man had been shot. One person said about six men on the court had gotten into an argument while playing and that someone told her to leave.
Another girl told police she was running away with her friends when a young man in an orange hoodie pulled up alongside them, said something she didn’t understand, then sped off. She could not describe the car.
A neighbor, Thomas Dupuis, told police he had heard the shots from his house and went to go see what was going on. Dupuis said he had talked with three boys at the basketball court, who told him “an unknown car pulled up next to the Basketball Courts and the occupants in the vehicles began shooting at them.” He added that one of the boys told him someone inside the car might have been shot. The boys had left before police got there.
No suspects have been identified as of press time.
A second incident was reported on December 29 about 6:37 p.m. The officer “had no contact with anyone shooting guns, nor were any shell casings found in the surrounding area.” According to the report, the officer spoke with Janet Britt, who “advised that she heard about 4-5 shots, but did not see anything.” Two people playing basketball told police they hadn’t seen anything, either. “Due to the incident,” the report notes, “the basketball courts were locked.”
Not in my backyard
The courts have been a source of neighborhood bickering since at least 2013. Residents who live near the park have complained on social media to councilmembers about litter, profanity, and, most recently, the sounds of gunfire or fireworks they say is coming from the basketball courts.
After residents previously complained about litter at the courts, the city council put a garbage can at the entrance. On Wednesday, a couple of water bottles, a forgotten piece of clothing, and small litter like blunt filters and bottle caps lay at the edge of the fence.
The controversy has divided residents in this historic neighborhood. People who live nearby say they cannot enjoy sitting on their own front porches and that they fear they or someone else will be hit by a stray bullet.
After the December incidents, several residents went on Facebook to complain to the police department:
Councilwoman Pat Sebo responded, asking why they had not brought their concerns to her or before the council as a whole.
“Why didn’t you contact me? There is and always has been an opportunity for members of our community to address the council and Mayor with any issues,” she wrote. “You can contact us personally or you can speak before the Council during our regularly scheduled meeting the second Monday of each month. There is a sign up sheet when you enter. If you or anyone is having issues we want to know.”
Sebo added, “Obviously if there is a situation in the city involving a police investigation we are not at liberty to discuss it with you and will defer to our Chief [of police].”
The Clayton Crescent asked some of the residents who posted their complaints on Facebook to speak with us for this story, both before and after the council meeting. Only Britt replied: “Not interested.”
At Monday’s meeting, Wise said he thought the courts should be shut down permanently as a safety measure and suggested that the basketball players could use gyms at Clayton County recreation centers. He also said he was not in favor of “taking an officer off our street to sit there and literally–and I hate to say this word–babysit the basketball courts.”
During public comment, several residents and former residents also called for the courts to be shut down.
Dupuis told the council he appreciated the attention they’d given “the recent events in the park and the basketball court. At first we had that first shooting, I thought it was just a quirk. We’ve had two more just recently.”
He added, “My house is just within firing range of the park, as well. They’re shooting at people and apparently they aren’t very good shots, they haven’t hit anybody. I don’t want them to accidentally shoot me or my grandchildren.”
Dupuis said cameras wouldn’t help if people wore masks. He also suggested “an armed guard,” although “it wouldn’t make the city look very good.”
“The last alternative would be to get rid of the basketball court altogether,” Dupuis said. “I think there’s an element or a crowd coming in from out of town to play basketball….but don’t go too late on getting the estimates to put cameras out there because somebody will get killed.”
“There’s a lot of good kids out there, and there’s a few bad people,” he said. “Try to evaluate the whole situation and make the best decision for everyone. Keep in mind, I don’t want to die, either, I’m very much within gunshot range.”
“Let me tell you something about Mr. Dupuis,” said Mayor Joy Day. “He survived Vietnam, so we certainly want him to survive the park.”
Anne Wise, who is married to Councilman Wise, spoke in favor of shutting down the courts.
“I’m all for closing this park permanently,” she said. “I understand–not the park, the basketball courts. I understand it’s an outlet for a lot of people. We’re fortunate enough to live in a county that has eight, eight gyms. Eight basketball gyms. There’s parks and recs all throughout our county. People that are using these parks, unfortunately, they’re not from our county. The majority of them do not live–they do not live–in the city, that are at our basketball courts.”
She added that the courts had been closed once before: “When they reopened, it was exactly the same. So I’m hoping that you all make the right decision, because someone will get injured, or worse, killed. And then the city’s going to be dealing with a lawsuit.”
Don Dixon told the council, “My wife and I do live in that nice big white house on the corner….We constantly have to pick up trash in our yard. I’m taking beer bottles, cans, and everything else. There’s nothing but just trash after trash after trash.”
“My wife is scared to sit on the front porch,” he said. “Unfortunately, she was on the front porch last week when someone came loose with some shots and raced down the street. She had to almost crawl in the door. Absolutely no excuse for this. It needs to be shut down.”
Dixon said he didn’t mind kids playing basketball, “but the main individuals using this court are grown men, who I have to constantly sit out there and listen to ‘m-f this, m-f that, I don’t give a g-d, and I want the ball, mother hmm.’….I’m requesting it be shut down because somebody’s gonna get killed.”
Britt read a letter from her daughter, who now lives in St. Louis with her husband and two children. They had been in town for Christmas, went to the park for one day, “‘and that evening, there was gunfire at the basketball court.'”
Britt said she was sitting in her living room on December 29, “and if you’ve never heard it before, gunshots ringing out, it actually–I felt it echoing in my house. I don’t need that.”
The only alternative she could think of was “possibly moving the basketball court to another area where it’s not surrounded by residents or schools. Because we have gunshots near school. And it’s breaking the law. So I am asking that you close the park down.
“Oh, not the park,” she corrected herself. “The basketball court.”
Dianne Moore said she doesn’t live in Jonesboro anymore. In 1983, she worked a the Jonesboro library and lived with her mother on Spring Street.
“At that time, I was proud to be a citizen of the city of Jonesboro,” Moore said. “You could not pay me a million dollars to be a resident of the city of Jonesboro now and I’m sad to say that.”
Moore said she and Britt had “missed being in the direct line of gunfire” by a few seconds December 22. She said they saw “several men running for their lives because the shooting had just happened and we happened to pass.”
Others said the basketball courts are a vital part of the community and should be reopened.
“I’m here on behalf of my peers and the youth of Jonesboro who use those ball courts as an outlet, also as a part of our way of life,” said Jasten Daniel. “This park has been a part of me for 20 years. This park has kept many of us out of the streets and out of trouble for many years.” He said taking away the basketball courts “would suck a lot of youth into the negativity surrounding the courts that it kept them away from–drugs, violence, et cetera. Lee Street is our home, and for me and my peers, we’re not ready to be evicted.”
Daniel added, “I can’t guarantee moving forward (that) all immature acts will stop, but I can assure you we’ll do our best to minimize them.”
Thelma Burt, who said she frequents the park to read and eat lunch, thanked the council for “being proactive” and said she was “praying that God will give you wisdom” in making their decision.
“As the young man said, there’s a lot of good youth that are out there playing, a lot of kids out there at the playground,” she said. “Parents need that outlet, you know. School’s virtual, so they need that outlet to go out there and have lunch and have the kids play.”
Burt added, “I’m a retiree from Fort Bragg. I’ve been in two war zones, so I know what a war zone looks like.”
Former Councilman Alfred Dixon, who said he plays on the courts, said he’d polled the neighborhood to get a sense of how people felt. Dixon also met with representatives of the First Baptist Church of Jonesboro, which has a recreation center, to work on a compromise.
“Coach T” and Andy Cauble of FBCJ told the council they wanted to be “part of the solution.” The church has an athletic ministry and has invited eight basketball players from the courts to come to the church’s facility.
Clayton County District 4 Commissioner DeMont Davis said he had not only visited the courts, but played there.
“We sit back and we listen to these comments, and we have to take every comment seriously from every constituent” he said, “and everyone has a right to an opinion here.”
Acknowledging residents’ complaints about cursing on the courts, Davis said, “Yes, I have heard some cursing out there, which I’ve heard at pretty much every park here in America, on a tennis court, a basketball court, or a baseball court. We’re going to hear that type of language in some types of competition. I’ve even hear them in boardrooms, as well, but we’re not closing those down.”
Davis added that crime in Sector 4, which includes Jonesboro, is down and that more people die of pedestrian accidents in Clayton County than from gunfire.
“We’ve got to look at how we treat the people, not the place,” he said. “Are we going to close down the entire park? Are we going to close down every place that’s had a shooting? We had a shooting at a church. Do we close the church down? We just had a shooting at an extended stay hotel. Do we close that down? That person was actually killed. We don’t want gunshots, we don’t want victims, but we’ve got to find the right solution, okay? The park is not killing and assassinating. It’s the people that are killing people. We just had gunfire at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.–do we shut that down, as well?”
Day said she thought the problem was “deeper than just Lee Street Park. Those of you who know me well know that I’m a law and order mayor, and I don’t play. I think we need to make it so that those people that want to come and do that at the park, they oughta be afraid to come into Jonesboro and do that. Now that’s my personal opinion and you can write it on the wall any day of the week.”
Adding that the city had just hired an assistant police chief and another officer in whom she had confidence, Day stressed, “I”m telling y’all, we are not gonna play footsie with this as far as I’m concerned….Our police department has been so proactive on some issues that have happened in the last two or three weeks.” She praised JPD’s detectives, declaring, “We just have to let people know that we’re a law and order city, and we’re just not gonna put up with it. Period. You know, they’d better be afraid of us, not us being afraid of them. Now that’s Joy Day’s philosophy right there. They’d better be afraid of us. Chief?”
Police Chief Tommy Henderson said it would be impossible to guarantee “that there would be no incident going forward.”
However, “when there is a problem or there is an issue, it is then our responsibility to figure out how to handle that, to put in place measures to combat that. So with the recent events, we have set forth a plan and implemented it, to put in place to see if we can affect the issues that are taking place.”
He added that the department had done “thorough investigations” of four calls “where there were shootings or possibly fireworks in the area,” but that only the first reported incident had turned up any bullet casings.
“I have instructed the officers to not get into back and forth when you’re talking to complainants, if they say it’s fireworks, or if they say that it’s gunfire, to not get into a debate about what it is because it’s a report that’s being made to us and we take that at (face) value, that that’s what it is, that that’s what the complainant is saying,” Henderson said.
Based on statistics, he said the last weapons call in Lee Street Park before the recent spate over the past 45 days happened in 2016. That same person had been arrested for robberies just a few days ago, “and that’s a long time of peace or tranquility in the city.”
The incidents are occurring between 5 p.m. and 7 or 8 p.m., he said. JPD’s plan is to post an officer between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the park. Because the shift normally starts at 6 p.m., the officer will get off work early. The officer also will lock the gates to the court at sometime between 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Around the clock, officers will patrol the park every hour.
The department also has launched a “See Something, Say Something” campaign with the number for an anonymous tip line pushed to social media and posted at the park. That number is (470) 543-2011.
“We definitely understand that perception is reality,” he said. “And if our citizens are not feeling safe, we have to address that to make them feel safe in our community.”
Councilwoman Tracy Messick said the vote was “a tough decision” and at first said she was not comfortable voting on it without more discussion.
“Something that crossed my mind was considering maybe a pause, a temporary closure–not a permanent closure, but a temporary closure–and maybe get some of the residents that are near the park to work with the police department and some of the athletes that are playing in the park together to come up with what are acceptable, what would be acceptable, what could you see being okay and you felt comfortable sitting on your front porch and you wouldn’t be scared. You know, I wouldn’t want to be scared sitting on my front porch, either….At the same time, we don’t want to chase people off that are there–and I’m gonna stretch and say 98 percent of the people are not there to cause trouble, they’re there to play basketball.”
Messick said everyone–including the players–should feel comfortable.
“It sounds like that, for at least two hours, they’re going to be under, under watch, you know? And how comfortable are they going to be in that situation?”
Day interjected, “If they’re not comfortable with a policeman at the park, they don’t need to come over there. That’s my opinion.”
“No, Mayor Day, I’m sorry,” Messick replied. “I didn’t mean that at all.”
“Yeah. I wouldn’t mind at all a policeman coming and watching me and taking care of me. At all,” Day said.
“I’m just saying, I think my personal opinion, I’m not comfortable voting in either direction on this right now,” Messick said. “It definitely needs more discussion.”
Day asked Messick, “How would you get the basketball players there?”
“Mr. Daniel was here tonight and he’s one of the players,” Messick said. “And maybe, Dr. Sartor, you said you frequent there often? Maybe you could go by and talk to some of the players?”
“It’s hard to do it now because it’s closed,” Sartor said. “My goal was to go by this Sunday. There’s a league of men that play on Sundays, and so my goal, actually before the last incident, was to go talk. The several occasions I’ve been there, it’s closed, you can’t gather them, so I went to the local barber shop down on Starr…that’s how we made contact and I was able to get several members here. But the problem is that because (the courts) are closed, we can’t communicate with them.”
A vote on shutting down the basketball courts for good failed 4-3, with Wise, Lester, and Powell voting in favor of closure and Sartor, Messick, Sebo, and Day voting against it:
The matter is now an executive decision for Mayor Joy Day and the police chief to work out.
Meanwhile, the basketball court and adjoining tennis court will remain closed until February 1 for everyone to “cool off,” and for the city to do some maintenance and figure out what to do about electricity for the new cameras, said City Manager Ricky Clark, Jr.
Councilwoman Donya Sartor spoke with The Clayton Crescent after the meeting.
“I’m going to say the majority of what is going on at the ballpark is individuals playing basketball without incident,” Sartor said. “There was an incident of a shooting. I’m still not convinced whether the shooting occurred at the court, or that’s just where the [bullet casings] were. You have read the police report and I have not. I have only read the synopsis of the report, which is not the report that Chief Henderson provided for us. So, there is no conclusive evidence that there was a shooting at the basketball court.”
She added, “When someone says ‘a shooting at the basketball court,’ that conveys to me that individuals that were at the basketball court shot at one another or shot at somebody there. It appears to me that there may have been a drive-by, and that’s where the casings lit. I’m not sure. Unless your police report says something different, it indicated that’s where some (casings) were found. And it also indicated that perhaps no one was on that court, because the number that was found, I just feel like it was nothing but the grace of God that no one was hit.”
“When you ask me, ‘What’s going on at the basketball courts,’ people, adults, of all ages, are playing basketball,” Sartor said. “If you did a statistical analysis, it’d probably be in the very high 90s that there is no problem. There was a shooting, in the vicinity, of not only the basketball court but the tennis court, Lee Street Park, and Lee Street Elementary.”
Asked whether it were a common practice for cities to shut down a park facility in response to a crime, Sartor said, “I know they usually do it for a crime scene, to make sure they gather evidence. For the duration that it was closed, I’m not familiar with that. I’m not saying it never happened, but I’m not familiar with that.”
The Clayton Crescent asked to what extent race was a factor in the controversy.
“I can’t say that because, typically, people who are biased in regard to someone’s race won’t willingly display it,” Sartor, the only Black councilmember, said. “And is it race when it comes to me saying I want the park, I want the basketball court to stay open because that’s where the majority of African-American men play? No. I want it to stay open for all to enjoy. It could be gender, it could be race. But I will say that I was concerned–and I vocalized that at the meeting–that I didn’t feel like we ignore the fact that there’s a whole park and concentrate–people are deliberately, councilpeople and members of the community, deliberately concentrating on the basketball court. If you’re concerned about safety and someone doing a drive-by, it’s far beyond the basketball court. It implies to me that you’re thinking that the individuals on the courts are causing trouble. And we have found that to be negative.”
She added, “I think it’s a culture. I’m very hesitant out of all fairness to every citizen that’s made a comment, every citizen that’s against it, to say that it’s a racial issue. That just wouldn’t be fair to them. But the majority of the people who play on the court are African-American men.”
In a Facebook discussion with Alfred Dixon, residents said they would “feel safe” if the basketball courts were moved between the new police station and City Hall–which haven’t been built yet–or if the county partnered with the city to build a recreation center with indoor courts.
Kim Mayo Dixon said, “(T)hat would be great. We all need to feel safe and the people playing basketball would surely feel safer if we moved it to that location. We are not against basketball.”
A.D. Dixon said he likes that idea. Other possibilities, he said, could include “repurposing the Perry Center or First Baptist ROC and making that our Boys and Girls Club or YMCA of Jonesboro.”
Open and shut?
On Wednesday, January 13, a big yellow X made of police tape, signifying no entry, stretched across the basketball court gate. Yards of police tape also cordoned off the playground and other areas of the park. A young mother was doing photography as her toddler sat on a picnic blanket.
A Jonesboro Police officer patrolling the area announced through her car’s loudspeaker, “The park is closed. The park is closed.”
The woman packed up her tripod and her toddler and toted them back down to her car. She told The Clayton Crescent that she had been shooting social media photos for her clothing line.
“I was over here the other day,” she said, “me, my husband, and him.” Her son grew fussy as she strapped him into the baby seat.
“We were finished up anyway.”
Another woman walking past the park stopped on the corner and took in the scene. Marie said she’s lived in Jonesboro for 22 years and that she frequently walks by the basketball court and has never had an issue with the players.
“I usually walk around here, and I’m gonna tell you one thing,” she said. “I don’t know what happened, they say there was some shooting. I walk every day. These people who play basketball, they never has said a word to me. They never made no remarks–you know, sometimes people make a remark? They never have. Like I said, I probably could have walked up and down here butt naked, they probably wouldn’t even know me.”
She added, “I come down here every day, Monday through Friday. If these people are playing, it sometimes be full, yeah. They never say nothing to me.”
Pointing out a house near the park, Marie said, “They’re the ones that complain the most….Her and her friend down the street, they tell so many lies, I don’t want to be around her.”
Another check of the park just before noon on Friday, January 15 found the rest of the park was open. A mother was pushing her children in a swing on the playground and the yellow police tape that had cordoned off the park was gone, except for the X that remained on the gate to the basketball courts.
Alfred Dixon, who has been trying to broker a solution with people on both sides of the issue, said the people who play on the courts and the city will need to work together.
“I believe we’re addressing the wrong problem,” Dixon said in a Facebook post after the meeting. “The problem isn’t the basketball courts. The problem is that there is gunfire. Closing the courts would only be moving the problem, not fixing it…We must continue to be civically engaged and have these hard conversations to ensure we are creating the most inclusive environment for our residents.”
As dusk fell on Friday, a Jonesboro Police car stood watch near the basketball courts. Several white kids on skateboards whooped and hollered as they raced past the farmer’s market area where two young Black men stood by their car. One dribbled a basketball. He said he’d come because he was impressed with the atmosphere.
“I’ve played here before,” he said. “I haven’t been here in a few months, but I said, man, I need to go back.” He hadn’t heard about the courts being closed and asked why.
When he learned of the shooting incident, his face fell.
“Well, I’ve got a membership (at a gym),” he said. “I don’t live here. I live in Fulton.”
Listen to what each public commenter had to say, as well as the discussion by city leaders about how to handle the problem, on YouTube at https://bit.ly/3iqCAla on our Jonesboro City Council (GA) playlist. The Clayton Crescent has painstakingly edited the debate into short segments to make it easier for you to find out who said what.
Learn more about the history of policing African-American leisure in public spaces at https://theconversation.com/the-forgotten-history-of-segregated-swimming-pools-and-amusement-parks-119586
We welcome community feedback on this issue.