The city of Mobile says it plans to crack down on security in Herndon Sage Park and other areas after a barrage of gunfire erupted just a few yards from a youth soccer game over the weekend.
According to the Mobile Police Department, a group of unidentified men fired several rounds from a vehicle near the public basketball court in Herndon Sage Park shortly before 6:30 p.m. on Friday, March 22. Despite the crowd, there were no reported injuries.
Witnesses have said the shots were fired during a heated basketball game.
At this point, very few details have been released by the MPD. Public Information Officer LaDerrick DuBose told Lagniappe investigators are following up on leads, but as of Tuesday, he said, MPD had not identified any suspects or persons of interest in the case.
The shooting was one of a handful reported in Mobile over the weekend, some of which resulted in life-threatening injuries. However, the incident at Sage Park drew a lot of attention on social media because at least part of it was captured in cellphone footage by others at the park.
It also happened next to a youth soccer game taking place at the same time — sending children, parents, coaches and spectators scrambling for cover. All of the activities scheduled in the park that evening were canceled as a result of the gunfire.
“We heard several gunshots nearby, then return fire — a total of around 15 shots fired in all! The shots came from the basketball court at Sage Park. The parties involved in the shooting fled on foot and ran past the soccer fields,” one mother wrote in a Facebook post that’s since been shared dozens of times. “The [Satsuma High School] soccer coaches had the girls lay on the field then hide, for that I’m so thankful.”
With three renovated soccer fields, Sage Park tends to be highly trafficked. The basketball court, which was built by Mobile County, has been a popular addition as well.
On any day of the week, it’s rare to see the court at the corner of Sage Avenue and Dauphin Street empty.
“Parks are part of the community,” Councilman Fred Richardson said during Tuesday’s City Council meeting. “We need to do everything we can to make sure children feel safe in our parks.”
Richardson’s district includes Sage Park, and he was quick to recommend some steps he believes could help improve security there. In response to some of those, Mayor Sandy Stimpson told councilors Tuesday the city plans to conduct “close patrols” at the park and add better surveillance.
“Close patrols” would mean officers walking around the park.
The council announced plans Tuesday to hold a public safety committee meeting in order to review the number of gun crimes that occurred in 2018 and look for possible solutions to the city’s ongoing problem with teenagers and guns. The meeting time was not announced as of press time.
As Lagniappe has reported, police have recently made a significant public push to encourage gun owners not to leave unsecured weapons in their vehicles. This has primarily been in response to an uptick in the number of vehicle break-ins, including several committed by teenagers.
Councilman C.J. Small has floated the idea of fining gun owners who fail to secure their weapons if those same guns wind up being used in a crime. Small sponsored a resolution on Tuesday’s City Council agenda supporting action by the Legislature to allow the city to implement its own gun control laws.
The resolution seeks to put in place mandatory reporting requirements for stolen guns, giving the city the ability to declare guns left in unlocked vehicles a public nuisance, require all gun owners to secure guns in a responsible manner and impose civil penalties on gun owners who fail to properly secure those weapons in a vehicle.
After a somewhat spirited debate between councilors at a pre-conference meeting, it was agreed the resolution would be held over for two weeks while Public Safety Director James Barber and Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran meet to review its language.
Specifically, Barber told councilors he and Cochran are looking to impose restrictions on permits for individuals who are unwilling to store guns responsibly. Barber did not comment more specifically on Small’s resolution.
On average, Barber said, some 1,200 guns are reported stolen from vehicles each year in Mobile. He also cautioned that many more may not get reported. Of those 1,200 reported, he said, only about half of the gun owners knew their weapon’s serial number.
According to MPD, 1,195 guns were reported stolen throughout the city in 2018, and as of the end of January, only 97 of those had been recovered by law enforcement.
Also on Tuesday, Small said he would even be in favor of bringing back checkpoints, specifically in the south Dauphin Island Parkway area. He said young people are just “too comfortable” riding and walking around with guns. That said, using roadblocks has caused problems for police in the past and yielded mixed results.
After a hiatus from using safety checkpoints — commonly called roadblocks — MPD revived the tactic in 2017 to target such communities as Maysville, Jackson Heights, RV Taylor and Village Green — all of which were areas police deemed to be “high crime” at the time.
Yet, multiple roadblocks led to fewer than 10 arrests and only two felony charges. They resulted in far more traffic tickets and towed vehicles than significant arrests for drug and gun possession.
Those kinds of operations have drawn criticism from civil rights groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center in the past as well. In 2017, SPLC urged MPD to end checkpoints that it claimed were disproportionately “targeting low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods.”
Mobile Police Chief Lawrence Battiste told Lagniappe earlier this year the department doesn’t do many safety checkpoints anymore. He also said the department typically announces the location of planned checkpoints in advance when they are used.
Dale Liesch contributed to this report.
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