Analysis: New Tupelo police chief could transform force

TUPELO – The appointment of Lee County Sheriff’s Capt. Tony Carleton to the post of Tupelo Police Chief signals a new era for the embattled department.
But it’s unclear yet what kind of era it’ll be.
Carleton is young, athletic and reportedly “color blind” when it comes to race, a trait that could help the department overcome problems that surfaced over the last few years.
Despite outgoing Chief Harold Chaffin’s numerous qualities, the veteran officer faced criticism toward the end of his nearly 40-year career: He was labeled ineffective and hands-off by members of the previous City Council; targeted in a controversial ethics report commissioned by the municipality; and accused of unfairly forcing a captain from the department amid claims of racial discrimination.
That captain, Cliff Hardy, sued the city in federal court this year and won his case. He now seeks reinstatement.
Just months after the verdict, Chaffin announced his pending retirement, scheduled for Dec. 31.
Carleton, 40, was named the successor by Mayor Jack Reed Jr., who called him an action-oriented leader who is “color blind” when it comes to race and is dedicated to continuous training.
He then won unanimous confirmation by the current City Council, several members of which praised the pick. Also approving were Carleton’s current and former colleagues, who called him an excellent choice.
“Tony is a very spiritual and honest man,” said Tupelo Police Maj. Jackie Clayton last week. “He’s well-trained and very mindful others. I worked with his dad for many years and he is also a good man, so Tony has a great family background. This move is not going to be anything but an asset to this department.”
The tributes were similar to those voiced for Chaffin when he was appointed chief by then-Mayor Larry Otis and his council seven years ago this month.
Chaffin “brings a lot of law enforcement knowledge to the table,” said Mickey Baker, an investigator with the Mississippi Highway Patrol at the time. “He has the experience needed and he has the respect of his officers. When you put all of that together, you’ve got someone who can serve as an excellent chief.”
But something went awry in the course of those few years. Many point to the 2006 demotion and subsequent resignation of then-Deputy Chief Robert Hall as the beginning of the end.
Hall later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors involving his release of a hit-and-run suspect and the investigation that followed. But the incident and its handling by Chaffin and other senior-level police officials sparked controversy within the municipality and community at large.
It prompted the hiring of ethics consultant Cindy Brown and her investigation into city wrongdoing, which ultimately produced a scathing yet untrustworthy report. The police department was heavily criticized within.
It also prompted Hardy’s comments defending Hall against what he perceived was racial discrimination. And it ultimately led to Hardy’s successful lawsuit against the city in which Chaffin and other high-level officials took the witness stand.
Now Hardy wants his job back, and talk both within and outside City Hall suggests Hall wants to come back, too.
Carleton takes office Jan. 1 and has the opportunity to repair the police department’s tarnished image, heal old wounds and promote racial equality within its ranks.
It’s unclear whether Hall and Hardy will play a role in that effort, but it’s a strong possibility.
Carleton, who briefly worked at the Tupelo Police Department in the late 1990s, knows both men and even listed Hall as one of his resume references for the city.
Tupelo attorney Jim Waide thinks rehiring the two, who also happen to be his clients, makes sense. He told the Daily Journal last week that Carleton will need help improving the department’s culture and practices, and that Hardy and Hall would be perfectly suited to do just that.
But their reinstatement could ignite a showdown within the City Council, several members of which are quietly stewing over such a possibility. Also watching is the black community and the NAACP, which had some members at last week’s council meeting.
Whatever Carleton does likely will be scrutinized as the fledgling chief seeks to define his administration. Every policy questioned, every hire analyzed, every move eyed. At least for a while.
That kind of situation could cause a lot of pressure for one man – even one so young and fit.
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal