Roanoke City Council Candidate Jamaal Jackson on Retaining Police, Strong Neighborhoods, and Protecting Green Spaces

Jamaal Jackson, an independent, is one of nine candidates in the regular Roanoke City Council election Nov. 8, 2022.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CANDIDATE

In advance of the Nov. 8 election for Roanoke City Council, The Roanoke Rambler is publishing interviews with each of the 11 candidates.

This week, we feature three candidates — one Democrat, one Republican and one independent — running for a regular four-year term of office.

Voters will be able to choose no more than three candidates out of nine running. The candidates are Dalton Baugess, David Bowers, Joe Cobb, Nick Hagen, Jamaal Jackson, Maynard Keller, Vivian Sanchez-Jones, Preston Tyler and Peter Volosin. (Democrat Luke Priddy and Republican Peg McGuire are running in a special election to fill a two-year Council seat.)

This week, we sit down with Jackson, an independent, Joe Cobb, a Democrat, and Nick Hagen, a Republican.

Jackson, 38, is the pastor of ReFreshing Church. A resident of downtown, Jackson serves as vice chair of Roanoke Neighborhood Advocates. This is his first run for elected office.

Candidates did not receive copies of the questions beforehand, and every interview was conducted either over the phone or in-person.

These interviews are accessible to non-subscribers to promote civic engagement among the widest possible audience. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Why should people elect you to serve on Roanoke City Council?

I’m glad you asked me that particular question. I am a community leader, a community advocate. I am in the race for City Council because I want to expand my work in the community by continuing to serve the citizens of Roanoke at a greater capacity. And, as I said, as a community leader and having the love for people, and a passion for people, I just want to see people grow, to see their standards grow, businesses grow and neighborhoods grow. It’s just my desire to see Roanoke become an even more inviting place for our residents to live, to grow up, to stay here, businesses to be planted, to develop, and even new families and businesses to come, as well. I just believe that this is an opportunity for me to continue the work that I have already been doing in the city, and keep that word going for the greater good.

One problem on many residents’ minds is violent crime — particularly shootings and homicides — which have increased both in Roanoke and across the country in recent years. Have you personally been affected by violent crime while living in Roanoke?

In 2019, a member of my church, Salonya Evans, was killed in southeast Roanoke. That was one of the first things that we felt, a pain that we had to deal with. Since then, we have been talking with families of victims of gun violence. We have been talking to other families, as well as a pastor here in this city, dealing with other acts of violence that are taking place, whether it's domestic violence, drug abuse, altercations between individuals, and then of course, theft is an issue as well. Rape is an issue as well. Just about three or four weeks ago, my personal vehicle was broken into in downtown Roanoke overnight. Things were stolen out of my personal vehicle. So I have experienced crime. I have not participated in it, I have experienced crime here in the city of Roanoke, and I think definitely, it's getting out of hand and we’ve got to do something about it.

Roanoke’s police department has significant vacancy issues, and every candidate has said the city needs to hire more officers. Last year, City Council approved compensation packages that the police department described as “one of the most significant pay increases for officers in several years,” and Police Chief Sam Roman said in an April Rambler interview that he is satisfied with the resources that Council has provided. Is there anything you would do on Council to try to hire more officers, particularly since higher pay alone has not led to a significant increase in officers?

We see officers who are being hired, but one thing that we're not seeing is a great retention rate for officers. And so one thing that I would propose is, after the recruiting, I would, first of all, propose a stronger recruiting measure that we're recruiting outside of our city, outside of our region, and possibly even outside of our state to a larger mass of people for those to become police officers here. Roanoke is a great place to live, it's a somewhat affordable place to live in comparison to other cities. And so it might be a great spot for someone else to come here, start a family and start a career in law enforcement and grow.

However, we have seen a number of police officers who get hired by the city, and then they go to the county or other localities, because they're giving them more incentives, more perks, more pay, or little things that come up that seemingly go a long way with them, and so they jump ship pretty quick. I would propose after hiring, after passing the academy, that they have at least a five-year contract with each one of those officers, and also have a no-compete clause in there so after their five years, they cannot go to the next locality in Roanoke County or another locality around us, but that we can maintain that retention rate that is higher in our police department. That's one thing that we don't have right now.

Of course, we could talk about putting them on the state benefits plan or the state pension plan and that would certainly be great as well. We could talk about unionizing police, and that could have different views and aspects. But I think if we could up our retention rate of those who actually get hired to stay with the police department, then we won't see the low rates and so many vacancies that are currently within the department.

What other options — besides increasing the police force — do you see as available to City Council for addressing some of the root causes of crime?

I think one of the issues is the family dynamic, and providing more support to families, more support to our schools could also reduce crime. I am certainly for stronger neighborhoods, and stronger neighborhood organizations. When our neighborhoods are stronger, then our families, our homes are stronger, and our city is stronger. And so I'm an advocate for community policing, where people are no longer afraid of their neighborhood but people are protecting their neighborhood and not allowing vacant properties to be occupied by abusers or prostitution or things that could cause the neighborhood to go down. But if neighbors take a real invested interest in their neighborhoods once again, we could see a lot of this crime going down. Of course, we could talk about satellite policing, and even neighborhood policing by police, making sure police are stationed across the city in our neighborhoods and not just in our high-crime rates, but making sure all of our neighborhoods are safe as well. I certainly believe in being neighborhood-strong.

What specific steps do you believe city government should take to address Roanoke’s history and legacy of racism, which includes city-sanctioned segregation, redlining, discrimination and urban renewal?

First should be an apology, and a heartfelt apology, to the areas of northeast Roanoke as well as Gainsboro, for the gentrification that took place in both areas. Property that was owned by Blacks, African Americans, was taken from those people. And we saw they were getting pennies on the dollar for their homes. They were getting pennies for their homes. And so that would be step number one, is a heartfelt apology. It may not have been these particular individuals who are in currently, but it was the city by itself. It was the dynamics of leadership at that time that did it, and there has never been an apology.

Secondly, is to make sure, again, going back to our neighborhoods, that the city is not continually trying to destroy neighborhoods by building more retail in neighborhoods, such as Evans Spring. I think that the Evans Spring area should be left alone. Residents, the majority of the residents there, have said that they don't want there to be redevelopment in that particular area off of 581 and the Valley View ramp, so let's leave it alone, as well as 0 Brandon [Avenue]. They don't want new development there. Even though it's housing, they don't want that development there. We have wetlands, we have green spaces that we need to keep in our city, because there are few of those. So those are some things that I believe could go a long way.

Also, making sure that there is a preservation of history, that we're not tearing down historical homes, but that we're preserving those homes, restoring those homes. Landmarks. Washington Park is a landmark park in the city, but the lower level of Washington Park is one of the ugliest sights to see in the city, and it's the first park that you see when coming in on Orange Avenue. Those things go a long way to letting African-American citizens in this city know that the city has their best interests at heart. And it goes to preserving the history. And that's not the only part of history, but that goes to African-American history. There are certainly other pieces and elements of history that are important to other communities of the neighbors here in the city, and I think City Council should really take into consideration the preservation of history that has been positive history in the forward movement of the city, not the regression of the city.

On Council, how would you advocate for mitigating the impacts of climate change at the local level?

By making sure we keep our green spaces and our wetlands. If we are considering taking those spaces, and taking green spaces and making them concrete land, then we are creating more climate issues. The more trees we have, the better our climate. The more wetlands we have, the better our climate. And so I'm all for making sure that our climate is going through the necessary changes, and we're making a better climate for us to live here in the City of Roanoke, not a worse climate for us to live here.

Roanoke operates on a weak mayor form of government, meaning that much power and authority rests with the city manager, whom City Council hires and to whom City Council provides a vision and direction for the city. You said at a Council candidate forum in August that you do not support the current city manager, Bob Cowell. Why is that?

I think I said it needs some different leadership. I would like to see in the city manager's office someone who has some Roanoke residency before they have a city office. I would like to see someone who has a vested interest in the city because they have lived here and they have loved here, versus someone who comes in from the outside with some ideas and some plans and projections but does not actually have a love for the City of Roanoke, Virginia. I have been a city employee before. I worked in the City of Roanoke for more than 10 years. And so I would love to see, I would like to see, some difference in the management of the City of Roanoke.

Roanoke is holding a special election this year because of the felony convictions of former councilman Robert Jeffrey Jr., who was found guilty in March of embezzlement and obtaining money by false pretenses. Even before the charges were announced, Jeffrey had a history — which was publicly available in court records — of not paying people. Do you have any history of financial mismanagement or impropriety?

No sir, I do not. As a matter of fact, my campaign to this very date has been 100-percent funded out of my personal pocket. We have not received any citizen donations, we have not done any fundraisers because I want to show the City of Roanoke that I am investing in my commitment. I'm personally investing in my commitment to serve the City of Roanoke.

We have seen people who have let the city serve them, but have not served the city. I am invested in serving the city of Roanoke. I hate what happened to former councilman Jeffrey. I wish to God it had never happened. But I know what I am doing and I do not have that particular history. I have never had that challenge in my life. The Lord has blessed me. And I'm grateful for what the Lord has done in my life, and He's allowed me to always have a place to live and food on my table. But as far as the city is concerned, as far as finances are concerned, I am financially invested in the city and I'm not looking for financial gains.

Second part. Have you ever been charged with a crime including traffic violations? If so, what did you learn from that experience?

I have. I was young, driving dirty. And it's not something that I have not talked about before. As a pastor, I teach my church, and I've told them many times, Listen, I spent 10 days in the Botetourt County jail because of traffic violations, years ago. I learned my lesson then. Ever since then, I have not had one speeding ticket. You know, if I have, I made sure I paid my fines because I do not want to deal with that ever again in my life. And so that's all I've ever had, you know, in life. I've never stolen anything. I've never been in trouble a day in my life other than driving. I like to travel, and so that was my issue. I was pastoring a church in Washington, D.C. at the time, commuting back and forth and doing a lot of driving, a lot of traveling and my tickets just got the best of me and unpaid fines, unpaid speeding tickets. I just got picked up at the wrong time and didn't have the best lawyer who had my best interests at heart, in my opinion, and I ended up having to spend 10 days there. That's not something I'm proud of, but it was a lesson and that's the most that I've ever had to deal with in any kind of record.

Have you ever ridden on Valley Metro? And what specific improvements do you think the city should make to its public transportation system?

I have ridden on Valley Metro, but it's been many years since I've ridden. When I was a teenager, I rode the bus. I believe in our public transportation system because we have quite a few citizens, our seniors, our young adults who depend on that, single mothers who depend on public transportation. I believe in our public transportation system. I would like to see improved bus routes. I would like to see bus shelters for those who are having to stand and wait for the bus to come. I would like to see improved bus routes so the buses are not overcrowded.

I just heard last week where two senior ladies were passed by at bus stops by Valley Metro, because in the words of the drivers, after a citizen approached the bus and asked, ‘Why did these two ladies get left on their bus stops?’ the response of the driver was because the bus was overcrowded. If that is the case, then we need to improve our bus routes so the buses don't become overcrowded and everybody that needs public transportation can get a spot on the bus. If those women had appointments, as doctor's appointments are hard to come by now, you have to schedule them months out, if that was their doctor's appointment for that day and they were late, now there's the potential of them not being able to get to that doctor's appointment. Now they have to wait a few more months. What if there was a health emergency? What if they needed a prescription or something changed? So many different variables could be associated with those particular individuals not being able to ride public transportation that day. My heart was broken. My heart went out to them. And so I would like to see an improvement there. I would like to see the purchase of more buses if needed, so that we can again extend public transportation. I would even like to push, as a member of city council, regional transportation, that we're not just in Roanoke City, but that we are partnering with our regional localities here in the valley, that we're providing transportation beyond the city limits. Some people may live in the city but work in the county, live in the city but work in Vinton, work in Salem. We have that regional partnership in transportation. We can serve even more people. But again, that would certainly require more buses and better bus routes.

One in every five Roanoke residents lives in poverty, and nearly half of all households make less than $45,000 annually, according to Census data. What can City Council do to reduce the city’s poverty rate and increase families’ wealth?

Encourage and create programs for affordable housing, making sure that we are rehabbing old homes, vacant buildings, vacant homes, into affordable housing. Making sure that there are proper federal credits, as well as historical credits to renovate and rehab houses and buildings into affordable housing for individuals, so that we can reduce that poverty rate. If people can't afford to live, they can't afford to eat. If they can't afford to eat, they can't afford to become a resident, and they're moving somewhere else. So in order to do that, we have to create affordable housing here in the Roanoke Valley. And especially in the City of Roanoke, where people can live here, work here, play here, and thrive here.

And you've touched on this a bit already, but what's your philosophy on residential or commercial developments whose construction would involve reducing green space, such as clear cutting trees or eliminating parkland?

I am absolutely against reducing green space. I am for redevelopment. I am certainly for local redevelopment and finding land developers or building developers, commercial developers locally. That creates a greater fabric here within the City of Roanoke. And so I am certainly for redevelopment of existing buildings, unused property that does not go against our green spaces, and does not go against our neighborhoods.

This question is unique to you.  Speaking of improving neighborhoods, you've been using the slogan ACTION Jackson for “Accepting Challenges To Improve Our Neighborhoods.” What is one of the first specific actions you would take on City Council to help improve neighborhoods?

I am currently the vice chair of the Roanoke Neighborhood Advocates Board. And coming up here in a couple of weeks, we're actually having a neighborhood leadership conference, where we're going to spend time teaching leaders in our neighborhoods how to once again revive our neighborhoods and our neighborhood organizations. As I said earlier, when our neighborhoods are strong, our city is strong. Our neighborhoods, our neighborhood organizations, our neighborhood watch groups, are essential to our neighborhoods.

Getting people who are moving to become long-term residents, not short-term residents. When I say short-term residents, I'm meaning renters. But home owners, they are moving in, investing into their homes, investing into their properties, getting them involved in the neighborhoods is how I believe we can not just accept the challenges to improve our neighborhoods, but we can address the challenges to improve our neighborhoods, meaning we're taking action in those neighborhoods. So it starts with having the ability for people to own homes, homeownership programs, affordable housing, so that people can not just rent homes, but they can own homes, invest into their own properties where they own themselves. And then again, it trickles over into the fabric of the neighborhood where the neighborhood becomes stronger because you have more people who are interested in the neighborhood because they actually own property in the neighborhood. And it again, becomes a ripple effect to create a stronger Roanoke as well.

What are you reading currently?

Oh, man, I am a pastor, so I've got quite a few books and reading. I got a stack of them I'm going through as I'm preparing for a conference in a couple of weeks, so I'm reading quite a few different materials. Usually books concerning theology, marriage and family are usually the books that I'm reading, leadership development, anything in those genres. I've usually got my head in those and I'm pulling information out of those so I can be a better leader, a better father, and a better pastor.