TUPELO – It started with noble intentions.
A new police chief, with the support of the mayor, would mend race relations in Tupelo by rehiring the man whose departure had sparked a racial rift.
With Robert Hall back in his job as deputy police chief, the city would have a prominent African-American in a high-level position and begin healing from the fallout of his 2007 resignation. Police effectiveness in Tupelo’s black community would be enhanced as a result.
But the plan backfired.
Instead of fostering unity, Hall’s return plunged the community into a new round of controversy. It split the City Council, angered some residents, threatened police department morale and pitted Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson against Mayor Jack Reed Jr. and prominent members of the black community.
It also cost Hall his job – again.
On Nov. 5, eight months after he had rejoined the police force, Hall resigned. The state had twice denied his request to be recertified as a law enforcement officer, a credential he had relinquished after his first resignation.
And some council members had threatened to slice his salary if he couldn’t get the certification reinstated.
“When I was given an opportunity to return to my chosen profession for which I had trained and dedicated my life, I was so pleased to do so,” Hall said in a written statement provided at his resignation. “However … it is obvious to me that my future is not with the Tupelo Police Department.”
Hall left without ever having regained arrest powers, yet during his brief stint he had been second in command of some 130 employees – a situation that angered some officers.
“He is a paper-pushing civilian with a city cell phone and a city car,” wrote one officer to City Councilmen Jim Newell of Ward 3 and Mike Bryan of Ward 6. Newell provided a copy of the letter to the Daily Journal. He said it’s one of many he has received since Hall rejoined the force.
“Morale,” the officer wrote, “is at an all-time low.”
Police Chief Tony Carleton could not be reached for an interview for this story, but he has said on previous occasions that morale on the force is good.
Carleton was hired as chief in December after the previous department head, Harold Chaffin, resigned.
It was Chaffin who had made Hall his second in command in November 2002. And it was Chaffin who demoted Hall to captain after he’d released a hit-and-run suspect in 2006.
That one incident – the release of an intoxicated driver whom Hall knew from church – started a chain reaction that ultimately led to criminal charges against Hall, a citywide ethics investigation, a federal lawsuit alleging racial bias on the police force and the departure of the police chief.
On May 28, 2006, Jamison Shells hit 16-year-old John McCain as he and a friend rode bikes on the McCullough Boulevard median. Shells left the scene as McCain lay injured, with a concussion, injury to his vertebrae and a gaping wound to the right arm.
Officers later arrested Shells in a parking lot miles away, after he had called police and said he thought he had hit something. He was en route to the Lee County jail when Hall intervened and ordered Shells, then 20, set free.
Hall later said he did it to protect Shells from one of the arresting officers who had a history of intolerance of minorities. But McCain’s family was infuriated.
Chaffin demoted Hall to captain, and the state attorney general investigated. Though the state agency initially found no criminal wrongdoing in Hall’s actions, it ultimately charged him with felony obstruction of justice and accessory after the fact.
March 2, 2007, Hall pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of those crimes and received a one-year suspended jail sentence and $1,000 in fines. He resigned from the department and took a job as director of community development for the Community Development Foundation.
In a separate trial, Shells pleaded guilty to DUI maiming and leaving the scene. He received a 15-year prison sentence and $80,000 in fines, but his sentence later was reduced.
He’s now free.
Accusations of bias
Community members immediately became riled at the accusations against Hall. He was no ordinary officer – he was recognized as a leader in the state, a career policeman with a perfect record and was respected by both blacks and whites.
Hall, now 44, had joined the force in 1987 as a patrolman and quickly moved through the ranks, earning a reputation as a solid officer and a hard worker.
The Saltillo native previously had attended Northeast Mississippi Community College and graduated from the FBI Academy in 2001.
“Robert had an excellent reputation as being a natural leader,” said Billy White, former Tupelo police chief and executive director of the Division of Public Safety Planning at the Mississippi Department of Public Safety.
White testified as a character witness for Hall during his failed certification hearing on Nov. 4.
“He was an officer’s officer, a natural leader,” White told the Daily Journal. “He had a calming influence among the ranks and was a liaison between the department and the community. I thought that allegation against him was totally out of character.”
Many, especially those in the black community, felt Hall was framed and intentionally ousted because of his race and his power. Others believed Hall was rightly accused for mishandling the hit-and-run.
One, police Capt. Cliff Hardy, claimed the department was racially biased and had unfairly attacked Hall. Hardy, who is white and a longtime friend of Hall, made his statement at a public Race Relations Forum in October 2006. Within days of that event, Hardy was removed from his position as an internal affairs officer. Five months later, he was stripped of other duties and assigned to a two-man patrol division for apartments and housing authorities, a position which he deemed undesirable.
Hardy later retired and sued the city in federal court, again alleging racial bias permeated the police department. He won his case in August 2009 and was awarded $300,000.
The same forum that included Hardy’s remarks also gave rise to the citywide ethics study. People had demanded an investigation into municipal personnel practices to see if blacks and whites received equal treatment.
An outside consultant, Cindy Brown, camped out for two years, interviewing employees, sifting through personnel files and angering administrative officials.
In the end, she produced a report whose merits few trusted – including the state auditor’s office, which refused to investigate its claims – and cost taxpayers $140,000.
A fresh start soured
The last link in the chain reaction came in October 2009, just two months after Hardy’s legal win, when Chaffin announced plans to retire by the end of the year.
Reed, who had taken office just months earlier, was expected to appoint a new chief to usher in a fresh start. But the hiring process immediately soured.
“During the time I was interviewing candidates about the police chief job, I had people from disparate parts of the community call me up and say, either the best thing to do for the city is to get Robert Hall back to where he was serving as deputy chief, that it would heal the city, build a bridge,” Reed said. “And then I had people say the worst thing you could do is hire Robert Hall back. The voices were out there, and some of those voices were from the City Council.”
Reed said he interviewed candidates from across the country – including Hall – and ultimately picked Carleton.
“Of all the interviews I did,” the mayor said, “he came out on top.”
Carleton is a Tupelo native and the son of a law enforcement officer. At the time of his interview, he was the Lee County jail administrator and an employee of the Sheriff’s Department. But he had briefly worked for the Tupelo Police Department in the mid-1990s and served with Hall.
Carleton, now 41, is white.
Reed’s pick instantly sparked controversy. He said some council members threatened to block Carleton’s appointment because they thought Hall should have the job. Others initially vowed to block Carleton because they feared he would hire Hall, but Reed assured them they would be consulted if Carleton made that call.
On the night of Carleton’s nomination to the council, about a dozen prominent African-American residents appeared at City Hall. They watched silently as the council ultimately approved Carleton’s appointment.
Three months later, the new chief called a press conference to announce Hall’s return as second in command. Carleton brushed aside media questions of Hall’s past, saying none of it mattered anymore.
But it did matter to some. The hit-and-run victim, John McCain, and his mother called Hall’s return a “slap in the face” and urged the city to reconsider its decision.
Soon afterward, an anonymous letter denouncing the move appeared in hundreds of Tupelo mailboxes.
Councilman Bryan publicly criticized the situation at a televised meeting, and council members began bickering among themselves.
“I think it was the beginning of the split,” said Councilman Newell. “This council was united before this incident.”
Newell also had opposed Hall’s return, and he accused Reed of having orchestrated everything without giving Carleton a choice.
“Mr. Reed was the one that hired a package deal when he appointed Carleton to chief,” Newell said, “and everyone in this community knows this.”
Reed said he’s aware of that rumor and continues to deny it: “Chief Carleton and I have been absolutely clear when we’ve been asked this, and I’m telling you, there was no agreement – no deal struck.”
According to Reed, he told Carleton, “It’s up to you to select your leadership team.”
Although Reed said he wasn’t involved in the decision to rehire Hall, he publicly and privately supported the move: Reed testified at the state’s certification hearing on behalf of Hall and had worked behind the scenes to facilitate the ultimately failed process.
The mayor’s involvement angered Sheriff Johnson, who sits on the state Board of Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training, the entity which hears certification cases. Johnson said the mayor had asked him several times to help win back Hall’s certification, to which Johnson said he replied no.
Reed said he discussed the matter with Johnson but did not ask for any special favors.
Some in the black community reacted by accusing Johnson of trying to block Hall’s certification. They responded by filing a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department alleging a lack of diversity in the Lee County Sheriff’s Department.
Kenneth Mayfield, a Tupelo attorney and the spokesman for the Coalition of African-American Organizations, acknowledged that Johnson’s involvement in the Hall case indeed sparked the complaint.
“We were concerned with the Robert Hall incident,” Mayfield said. “We were told (Johnson) was working undercover to prevent the Robert Hall thing, so then we got to looking at the Sheriff’s Department.”
In the midst of all the fuss is Hall, a career policeman, husband and father who unwittingly became a symbol of strains in Tupelo race relations.
It’s unclear where Hall will go now. He had left a good job as head of security at Toyota Motor Manufacturing Mississippi to return to the city – a position that since has been filled. And he did so based on the assurances of Carleton and Reed and, apparently, Billy White.
As head of the agency that handles law enforcement certification, White reportedly told Hall and Carleton not to worry about reclaiming Hall’s certification; he could get it back, no problem.
Hall quit Toyota believing White, said Reed.
White had a different recollection of those conversations. He said he told Carleton and Hall that they could apply for certification and go through the hearing just like anybody else. But he said he never made any assurances.
“The biggest tragedy is for Mr. Hall himself,” Reed said. “Obviously in retrospect … if (White) had said, ‘I don’t think you could get recertified,’ Chief Carleton would have never asked him to come back. I wouldn’t have approved him to come back. So that’s the tragedy right there.”
EMILY LE COZ / NEMS Daily Journal