Gulfport residents rally to save department from cuts

GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - By Krystal Allan – bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) - Some Gulfport residents rallied Tuesday night to save the city's Community Relations Division. It's a department under the Gulfport Police Department.  Residents say it provides outreach the city can't afford to cut when it comes to public safety.

"They are the ones organizing the citizens to make sure things are nipped in the bud before they get out of control. Before Merlissa Lewis came along, our neighborhood was trash.  She's our voice. You get rid of our voice and our crime is going to sky high," said Gulfport resident Sara Elmer.

Elmer lauded Lewis' efforts to organize block captains, community watches and keep neighborhoods from becoming apathetic about crime.  Residents also applauded Elizabeth Payne for the work she's done to keep communities crime free.

"The one person that has really made a difference has been Elizabeth. We don't want to lose our link to the city. It's a good link. It works, and it's getting better and better and better," said resident Lena Bird.

During the meeting, citizens learned their pleas would not fall on deaf ears.  Chief Alan Weatherford submitted a revised recommendation to the city.  In it, he suggested keeping 11 positions vacant so no one would have to go home.

The vacancies include five sworn officer positions.  He suggested freezing the positions for one year.  Also, an administrative assistant, one captain, two lieutenant, and two animal control positions would not be filled.  The chief said some of the positions were left vacant following recent resignations.

For the most part, the news seem to go over well, but some expressed concerns over the vacancies.  They questioned the impact fewer officers would have on safety and ultimately Gulfport's image, especially as it relates to potential residents and businesses.

Despite the concerns, at least two council members voiced their support of keeping the division in place.

"I was very concerned about cutting an entire department. Maybe it's only nine or 11 people, but they represent hundreds of people in the community," said Ward 6 Councilman R. Lee Flowers.

The council will consider this and other budget items when it votes to adopt a budget next Tuesday.

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