When it comes to police force, quality over quantity, chief says|[10/12/06]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 12, 2006

Employment numbers are still down at the Vicksburg Police Department, but Chief Tommy Moffett isn’t worried.

&#8220I would like to have more people,” he said. &#8220There’s no doubt about that. But do the people of Vicksburg want qualified officers or do they simply want numbers?”.

Since Moffett took over as Vicksburg’s top cop in October 2001, the department has lost more than 70 officers to termination, resignation or retirement. The total number on the force is down from 102 in October of that year to 68 this month, with the latter number expected to fluctuate before the end of this year.

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&#8220But we get the job done,” Moffett said. &#8220When I came here in 2001, there were 102 of us and the job wasn’t getting done. Numbers don’t do the job; people do.”

Nineteen slots for sworn officers are available, Moffett said. The department is allotted 87 such positions on a $4.3 million budget that features the highest income potential for municipal police officers in the state.

Moffett said he cannot justify returning employment numbers to its 2001 level.

&#8220Back then, the numbers were high,” he said. &#8220But the response was terrible, accountability was non-existent and lawsuits were all over the place. Now we don’t have all that.”

Moffett, 56, became Vicksburg’s chief after retiring as chief of Biloxi’s police department where he had worked 24 years. He replaced Mitchell Dent, who had been chief for nearly two years of a department that had as many as six chiefs in the previous 10 years.

A study showed the department top-heavy with far more supervisors than rank-and-file.

&#8220People weren’t doing anything,” Moffett said. &#8220If you were a sergeant or higher, you didn’t take calls unless you absolutely wanted to. Also, three people here were considered on light duty, and one of them had been on light duty two years.”

That’s not all, Moffett said. In contrast to current department policy, four captains were taken off shift supervision and lieutenants were instead put in charge.

&#8220That’s the kind of stuff that was going on,” he said. &#8220They had about 13 people who had jobs but were basically doing nothing. We’ve got photos of one officer sleeping on the job, and some people were clocking in, leaving work, coming back later and clocking out.”

Vicksburg Mayor Laurence Leyens, whose first term started in July 2001 following a campaign based on providing a better police department, echoed Moffett’s assessment of the &#8220previous world.”

&#8220We had half the police force who just sat around the office and did what they wanted to do,” he said. &#8220A lot of people on payroll were contributing absolutely zero. We’ve raised the standard on what we expect, and the police officers we’ve hired have been fantastic.”

Moffett praised the work of his administration and appeared tired of the questions about numbers – which have been ongoing for several years.

&#8220If the news media suggests we hire everyone who wants to be a police officer, I would disagree,” he said. &#8220This has nothing to do with more people on the streets. The Vicksburg Police Department gets a better report as far as response, accountability and case work.”

The problem, the chief insisted, is two-fold: Non-qualified candidates are applying for jobs with the department and good officers are leaving for other departments close to home.

For example, 111 applications were distributed to potential candidates for the department’s physical agility test and written exam Saturday. Of those applications, 33 were returned. That number was further reduced when 22 of 24 recruits passed the agility test and when 12 of 21 passed the written exam.

Moffett said, of those 12, he anticipates about three or four being hired – after they pass physical and psychological tests, a background check and a drug screen. The result is typical, he said.

&#8220If they’re no good, what’s the point?” Moffett said. &#8220If you pay me $150,000 and I do a good job, you’ve got a bargain. But if you pay someone $25,000 and they don’t do a good job, you’ve wasted your money.”

Leyens said he is &#8220absolutely” confident in Moffett’s handling of the police department.

&#8220The crime numbers speak volumes,” Leyens said. &#8220And when you break down the crime we have, it’s a few individuals doing a lot of crime.”

By Sam Knowlton.

No appeal expected in cop’s reinstatement.

Bobby Jones is to rejoin the Vicksburg police force a week from today and no appeal of the decision ordering his reinstatement is expected.

City officials had voted 2-1 to fire Jones, but in an appeal to the Civil Service Commission, he won a 3-0 ruling on Sept. 27 that a 15-month suspension without pay was appropriate.

Jones has been suspended since July 21, 2005, the day he and another officer were arraigned on Warren County Circuit Court sexual battery indictments.

Both officers were accused of having consensual sex in the summer or fall of 2004 with a 17-year-old Vicksburg High School student.

The other accused officer, Anthony Lane, also appealed to the commission, which also reviewed his case and rendered a 3-0 decision in the opposite direction, to keep him off the force.

Lane was assigned to duty at the student’s school as a &#8220school-resource officer.” Jones was assigned to the Vicksburg Police Department’s traffic division.

Lane was tried before a jury on the indictment against him, with the jury acquitting him June 14.

Lane’s attorney, Ramel Cotton of Jackson, has indicated he and his client have yet to decide whether to appeal his firing.

City Attorney Nancy Thomas said she did not know of any plans for the city to appeal Jones’ reinstatement.

Jones also has the option of appealing his suspension to court and seeking a ruling for 15 months in back pay.

Any appeal in either case would go to Warren County Circuit Court.

At Lane’s trial, the VHS alumna testified that she initiated the relationship. Neither officer has denied that it occurred.

After finding out about the situation, Police Chief Tommy Moffett recommended a 20-day suspension for Lane and no discipline for Jones. The city board approved that sanction May 13, 2005. Following it, Lane was returned to duty for about seven weeks, during which time he was reassigned to duties not primarily at VHS.

Charges were brought after District Attorney Gil Martin requested and received, in June 2005, an opinion on the law from the state attorney general’s office.

In Mississippi, a person may legally consent to sex at age 16, but a state law makes it a crime for a person &#8220in a position of trust or authority” over someone not yet 18 to have sex with a 16- or 17-year-old. The law gives as examples of positions that fit that definition 16 titles, including teacher, minister, counselor and coach, but not including that of police officer or school-resource officer.

The letter from Attorney General Jim Hood’s office says that a school-resource officer is in a position &#8220of trust or authority over students in a school to which he is assigned” and that &#8220a police officer who is not assigned as a school-resource officer could be in a position of trust or authority over all citizens of the municipality in which he serves, minors included.”

Both Lane and Jones were suspended without pay following their arraignments.

After Lane was found innocent at trial, Martin dropped the charge against Jones.

The written opinion of the Civil Service Commission said it was clear Jones deserved some punishment.

&#8220The disciplinary action by the board of mayor and aldermen was warranted and made in good faith and for good cause,” it said. &#8220However, the commission does not find that the charges and evidence support termination.”

Moffett testified during Lane’s trial and during the commission’s appeal hearings for both officers that he believed no crime had been committed.

Moffett has joined others in asking the Legislature to add law-enforcement officer to the list in the statute to make clear future incidents would be illegal. Sexual battery carries a maximum 30-year prison term.

Moffett said Wednesday that he couldn’t remember publicly expressing opposition to a decision of the commission and the Jones case would be no different.

&#8220Independent decision-making is what makes the system work, and I truly believe in independent decision-making,” Moffett said.

Officers are required to be firearms-certified at least twice a year and Jones would need to complete that certification before being returned to full duty, Moffett said. Jones will be assigned to the patrol division and is not expected to require any other refresher training, Moffett said.