Petition circulates at MPD
Nov. 4, 2001
I have suggested in this column that the opinions of Meridian police officers should be considered as the search for a new police chief narrows.
But, short of making a list and talking to each one, there did not seem to be a way to compile a representative sampling and incidental remarks made by specific officers might not reflect the overall feeling of the department.
That was the situation until Friday, when Detective Thom Bittick of the Criminal Investigation Division gave me a copy of a petition he wrote making the rounds at the police station.
To date, it is signed by 61 people who work at the police station. Of these, Bittick says at least 48 are sworn police officers.
What the petition says
The petition takes two stands.
First, it says that the delay in naming a new police chief is creating fear and stress among police officers and defines both terms.
In its second major thrust, the petition endorses Acting Chief Benny DuBose's appointment as Meridian's permanent police chief. It also suggests that the police chief's position should be placed under the Civil Service Commission.
Putting the numbers
Bittick estimates that a fully staffed MPD has 110 officers. But, the police station is not fully staffed and has not been for some time. Even before Sept. 11, the patrol division was short 17 officers. With call-ups from the Mississippi National Guard and resignations, that number has risen to 24.
There are, then, about 86 officers at the MPD so the 48 names on the petition represent about 56 percent of those available to sign.
Even if not another officer signs the petition, a 56 percent majority is pretty compelling in a four-man race. Or, three, if you don't count Capt. Keith McCary, who has now interviewed for the position but thinks DuBose should be appointed. Or, two, if you don't count Lt. John McAlister, who shipped out several weeks ago with the 186th Air Refueling Wing.
That leaves DuBose and the final candidate, Capt. Roger Welborn, and an as-yet-incomplete petition that will be presented on Tuesday to Mayor John Robert Smith and the Meridian City Council.
All of this is a little deceptive, because there are out-of-town candidates whose names have not been made public. Just as with the four local candidates already identified, the mayor feels it is inappropriate to do so. I feel differently. We disagree on this.
The late sheriff of Jones County, Maurice Hooks, once told me I could stand on the corner by the courthouse and hear anything I wanted to if I waited long enough.
He was right about that, and many of the rumors I have heard are will-o'-the-wisps, phantoms that you hear only once and from only one source. More persistent and known by every officer of my acquaintance and many of my off-the-record community sources is an "open secret" that at least one lieutenant from the Charleston, S.C., police department is being seriously interviewed.
This makes sense.
Several groups of Meridian officers and city officials have visited the Charleston Police Department to see how they do things. The chief there, Reuben Greenburg, made a national name for himself in community policing circles and wrote a book in 1989 called, "Let's Take Back Our Streets." He has appeared on "60 Minutes," "Larry King Live" and "The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour."
The 350-man department runs "What Works" seminars for visiting officers from all over the country.
As in the past, Mayor John Robert Smith declines to discuss either internal or out-of-town candidates. He did return my call to formally decline comment.
A reluctant organizer
Meanwhile, in Meridian, Bittick is at pains to point out two things: 1) That he was more-or-less drafted to write the petition, and did so on his own time and in his capacity as a private citizen; and 2) He doesn't have any problem with the mayor, just the situation.
Bittick also said he does not fear reprisals for writing the petition, or for releasing a copy of it to The Meridian Star.
Suzanne Monk is managing editor of The Meridian Star. Call her at 693-1551, ext. 3229, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.