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City’s new police chief takes over

North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young, left, holds the Bible for incoming Vicksburg Police Chief Tommy Moffett as Mayor Laurence Leyens swears him in at City Hall Annex Wednesday. Looking on beside Moffett is his wife, Debra Moffett, and Biloxi Capt. Darrin Peterson.(The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN

[10/04/01]Vicksburg’s new police chief “has his work cut out for him,” Mayor Laurence Leyens said following a swearing-in ceremony Wednesday before city and local law enforcement officials.

Tommy Moffett, who retired as chief in Biloxi two weeks ago, was unanimously appointed by the city board and replaces Mitchell Dent, chief for 19 months. Dent, an ordained minister and graduate of the FBI Academy, accepted the position of interim deputy chief.

Leyens promised the board would support Moffett, but said he expects results.

“It’s good news because we will give you absolute autonomy,” Leyens said. “The bad news is we will hold you totally responsible.”

Moffett, who retired after 29 years with the Biloxi Police Department, was joined by his wife, Debra, and one of his former police captains from Biloxi at City Hall Annex.

“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” Moffett told the board. To the 100 officers he now manages, Moffett said, “This is a new day and we move forward from here. No matter what somebody did yesterday, I’m in charge now.”

He said that he has no specific changes planned for the department, but that he wants to start working on improving the perception of the police immediately. He said he wants officers to be more responsive to the public and follow up on every crime.

“There seems to be a perception that we are not credible and that’s not good,” Moffett said. “Within short order, you will see major, positive changes in the police department.”

Moffett began his career in Biloxi in 1972 as a reserve officer and worked his way up through the ranks. In 1986, he became Biloxi’s first black police chief but was replaced by a new mayor in 1989.

Four years later, he was put back at the helm of the department.

As police chief in Biloxi, a city nearly twice the size of Vicksburg, Moffett’s pay was $62,338 a year. Here, Leyens said he will be making $80,000 a year, almost $28,000 more than Dent made.

Biloxi Police Capt. Darrin Peterson, who has worked with Moffett since 1988, said he came to Vicksburg to offer support to Moffett. “He’s been like a mentor to me,” Peterson said.

Warren County District Attorney Gil Martin also had praise for the new chief, at one time a candidate for the chief of the Jackson Police Department, the largest in the state.

“We did check him out on the Coast and he got very high marks from down there,” Martin said. “I think Chief Moffett is going to be a good chief and I look forward to working with him.”

Martin’s past difficulties with police detectives resulted in his refusal to accept felony cases from some. Although often praised during Dent’s tenure, previous grand juries had blasted the department in written reports for failing to effectively document their work and myriad other reasons. Drug arrests also dropped sharply in the late 1990s and the department faced three civil suits, all alleging abusive acts by multiple officers.

Moffett said that he never applied for the position of chief in Jackson, but had been approached by city officials there about taking the job. In the end, he said it was the quality of life in Vicksburg that drew him here.

“I felt (Vicksburg) would just be a nice place to live,” said Moffett, who arrived in Vicksburg Tuesday.

Leyens also confirmed Wednesday that the city has been looking to recruit John Tisdale, who has also been named as a candidate for the Jackson police chief’s position, for a post in Vicksburg. Tisdale, a precinct commander in Jackson and former Vicksburg police officer, has been recruited for a new position responsible for performance evaluations, continuing education and field training.

Leyens said hiring would now be up to Moffett.

When the present city administrators took office in July, all department heads, including charter officers such as the police and fire chiefs and city attorney, were retained. Since then, personnel manager Wayne Roberts was fired and Dent has been replaced.

Moffett said he plans to begin evaluating the police department to make sure that the right people are in the right positions. including Dent.

“If changes are necessary I plan to make them,” Moffett said. “There are some internal issues that need to be dealt with immediately.”

Dent, whose new salary has not been determined, a city attorney says, will serve as one of the department’s two deputy chiefs. Last month, the deputy chief positions held by Janelle Lee and Frank Phelps were eliminated by the board, leaving the department with one deputy chief, Jack Dowe.

Before the promotions of Lee, Phelps and Dowe in April 2000, the department had operated with one deputy chief. Lee and Phelps were returned to their previous ranks.

Other changes in the department since the new administration took office three months ago have included a $1.6 million cut in the department’s budget funded mostly by a reduction of officers from 100 to 74.

Pay raises were also budgeted to increase starting wages $8,000-a-year, but how those raises will be dispensed has not been made clear.