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franklin county times

Communication key to public safety

By By Fredie Carmichael / staff writer
July 19, 2004
Rusty Fortenberry, a former district attorney for Covington, Jasper, Simpson, and Smith counties, was appointed early this year by Gov. Haley Barbour as commissioner of the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.
Fortenberry was given the task of operating the department with a more than $100 million budget and about 1,400 employees.
The Mississippi Department of Public Safety now includes the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. It also includes homeland security functions, which previously was part of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.
Fortenberry met with The Meridian Star editorial board last week to talk about his agency and job.
The Meridian Star: There have been some changes in the Department of Public Safety since you took over in January. Tell us a little bit about how you've adjusted to your new job and its changes.
Rusty Fortenberry: My background is a former district attorney. I worked with sheriffs, police chiefs, judges, victims. We've got to start looking at the criminal justice system from a comprehensive standpoint.
When we make a decision with the (Mississippi) Highway Patrol, how is that affecting the local sheriff or police chief? When we make a change with the Mississippi Crime Lab, how is that affecting court in Lauderdale County? Those are the issues we've got to start looking at.
We've got to understand how the criminal justice system works. The perception, pretty much around the state, is that we're the Highway Patrol. Well, the Highway Patrol is the most visible part of the Department of Public Safety, its tradition is very good and it's the backbone to our department.
However, our department has so many more elements. You've got the Crime Lab; Public Safety and Planning that administers some $23 million to $25 million in grants each year to local law enforcement agencies; and the Council on Aging.
You've got the Mississippi Highway Patrol, the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations (and) the training academy in Pearl that trains law enforcement and Highway Patrol around the state. Then you've got the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics, which historically the director was appointed by the governor. The commissioner of Public Safety is also appointed by the governor.
Then the statute says, "Well, director (of the Bureau of Narcotics), you report to the commissioner of Public Safety." Well that would swing like a wild pendulum depending on administration.
One governor could come in and say, "Well I appointed the director of the Bureau of Narcotics, so he reports to me." Another governor would come in and say, "No, you report to the commissioner of Public Safety." So it's always been in a gray area.
Well, the Legislature just addressed that this year. The No. 1 reason was efficiency. We've got to start coordinating efforts with the Bureau of Investigations and the Bureau of Narcotics. Eighty-five percent of crime is drug related.
Now does that mean that they each need to know what the other is doing? No. But they need to coordinate their efforts. Also, it doesn't make sense to me for the Bureau of Narcotics to be spending money on helicopters. The Department of Public Safety has helicopters. Why can't they use ours? Why can't we save that $1 million or $2 million, plus the insurance and the up-keep? Why do they need an accounting department when we have one? You can combine these efforts.
The goal is to make it a stronger agency, speaking of the Bureau of Narcotics.
Also in January, Gov. Barbour made a policy decision on Homeland Security. You look at Homeland Security historically and the gut reaction was that it went with your National Guards with threats to our borders.
Along came 9/11 and we realized how unprepared we are from a response effort. That's why he saw the pendulum swung to the response effort and homeland security was with MEMA (the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency).
Robert Latham and MEMA have done an outstanding job. They did a lot of work in the area of administering grants to Mississippi agencies, getting the money to the Regional Response Teams and preparing local entities from an equipment standpoint and from a training standpoint. So, if you have a national disaster or some act of terrorism, they are prepared to respond.

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