Police rules may change after officer’s suspension|[5/20/05]

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 20, 2005

Next time, if there is a next time, the disciplinary action could be more severe if a Vicksburg police officer assigned as a mentor has a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old high school student, Mayor Laurence Leyens said Thursday.

Last week, the Vicksburg Board of Mayor and Aldermen voted to suspend an unnamed policeman without pay for 20 days for “conduct unbecoming an officer.”

At the time, officials did not disclose the name of the officer and would not discuss the specific allegations, but now say they want to change the city’s policies to make sex with a student a fireable offense.

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Thursday, Leyens said he wanted the officer fired, but was told any consensual relationship was legal and that only the “conduct unbecoming” provision would apply.

Although teachers and administrators have “morals clauses” in their annual employment contracts, Vicksburg’s human resources department said nothing in the policy manual specifically prohibits employees from having consensual sex with students, other employees or subordinates.

While many people still think girls must be 18 to engage in consensual sex, the actual state law specifies the age of 16.

The suspended officer was assigned to Vicksburg High School and there were reports the student was also involved with a second officer. The second officer, however, was not assigned to the school and no disciplinary action was recommended.

Vicksburg High School Principal Charlie Tolliver said Thursday that school officials were not aware of the relationships until after the city board acted last Friday.

“It was very shocking to hear what was going on,” Tolliver said. He also said the school had never heard any complaints about the suspended officer, who is 28 years old and married.

The officer has worked for the department for nearly five years and had been at Vicksburg High School as a resource officer for at least one school year. He was one of three such officers who provided security and mentored students at the high school and two junior high schools in the city.

He could not be reached for comment and has since been reassigned, said Deputy Chief Richard O’Bannon.

The relationship with the suspended officer was first reported to the police chief by another police officer, and it was investigated by the Internal Affairs Division before the recommendation was made to the city board.

Leyens said he did not know where the encounters took place, but he had been told the relationship with the first officer ended in the fall and the second one began after the first ended.

Tolliver said the student, a senior, had her last day at school May 6.

“We will review our current policies covering all city employees to see what language can be made to cover this situation in the future,” said Lamar Horton, director of human resources.

A personnel policy normally is changed after wording is selected by the human resources office, reviewed by the legal department and approved by the city board.

Leyens said the city board also will ask the Legislature to re-evaluate the age of consent for sexual relationships.

As a civil service employee, the officer has 10 days to appeal any disciplinary action to the city’s Civil Service Commission, which can amend or overturn the city board’s decision. Appeals, if filed, are open to the public.