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Commission upholds cop’s demotion

[04/12/01] The demotion and suspension of a Vicksburg policeman was upheld Wednesday by Civil Service Commission members who said there was no politics involved.

Joe Head had objected to being dropped from sergeant to patrolman and suspended for 10 days after he and other officers stopped a car Nov. 26.

According to testimony, the reason was a report by a 19-year-old in the vehicle that she was cursed and told to unzip her shirt.

Also at the scene were Patrolman E.J. Wilkinson and Sgt. Mike Bryant. Wilkinson, who has been with the department for about a year, was also given a 10-day suspension.

According to the complaint report, the teen said Head directed offensive language at her and her male companion and that Wilkinson told her to unzip her shirt.

Jackson attorney Kate Eidt, who represented Head, said that he was never given a reason for his demotion and suspension and wanted a chance to present his case.

“The meeting that I had with the Chief of Police (Mitchell Dent) and Walterine (Langford, attorney for the city) was not sufficient,” Eidt said.

During two hours of testimony, Head, Wilkinson and Bryant all testified that the teen passenger was never asked to get out of the vehicle or to remove any clothing.

“I did not have any contact with her,” Wilkinson said.

The officers testified they had been patrolling an area off U.S. 61 South on Miller Road where several drug arrests had been made. There, they spotted a vehicle parked in a dark parking lot, but as the officers approached on foot, the driver of the car started the engine and left.

“We shined our lights on them and identified ourselves as police, but they just drove past us,” Bryant said.

The officers testified that they then began looking for the vehicle on U.S. 61 and pulled it over near Rouse Rubber Industries Inc. Bryant said that when Wilkinson began explaining why they had stopped the car, that the driver became belligerent and cursed at the officers.

Bryant said that Head became obviously angry at the driver and began to raise his voice at the man.

“He lost his temper,” Bryant said. “Sgt. Head made sure the driver knew who was in charge of the traffic stop.”

Langford, defending the city’s action, said that it was part of the officers’ duty to remain courteous and professional at all times, even if the driver did become angry at them. “That’s part of the job,” she said. “If you pull me over for speeding, I’m not going to invite you to dinner.”

No citations were issued during the stop.

Internal Affairs Investigator Virdell Lewis testified that the teen was given a polygraph exam by the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol, which indicated no deceptions in two exams.

Head and Wilkinson also volunteered to take the polygraph exam. Both tests indicated deceptions by the officers on one of 10 questions asked.

The officers did not offer explanations of why they missed questions on the exam.

“The truthfulness of an officer is one of the sacred things of law enforcement,” Dent said. “The polygraph showing deceptions was a main concern to me.”

Lewis said that Bryant, who was not disciplined for the incident, did not take the polygraph exam because he was not identified in the complaint by the female.

Eidt objected to the testimony of Lewis regarding the polygraph exams because he did not administer the exams and because the evidence would not be admissible in a court of law. The results of the tests were allowed in the Civil Service hearing.

“If you were to take away the polygraph test all you’ve got is the testimony of the three witnesses,” Eidt said, referring to the officers.

The action against Head and Wilkinson was taken by the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Alderman Feb. 20 based on a recommendation from Dent. That meeting was closed to the public.

“The action by the city wasn’t for political or religious reasons,” said commission chairman Joe Graham. “We further conclude that the city had just cause.”

The three-member commission is responsible for reviewing personnel decisions by the city’s three elected officials to ensure that the action is not taken for political or discriminatory reasons. Without finding the action against Head political or discriminatory, the commission had no grounds to overturn the city board’s action.

Head would not comment after the hearing.

In other matters, the commission:

Set a public hearing date for Vicksburg firefighter Craig Thomas on May 9 at 2 p.m., at City Hall.

Approved a lateral transfer for Vicksburg Police officer Betty Wilson.

Approved placing Sherman Johnson on the police rehire list.