ABERDEEN – “Vindicated” was former Tupelo Police Capt. Cliff Hardy’s immediate reaction to winning a jury verdict Friday against the city of Tupelo.
“I’m so glad it’s over,” said his wife, Gail, shaking with emotion. “I’m so proud they did it.”
She was speaking about the jury of four men and four women who agreed that TPD Chief Harold Chaffin and others pushed Hardy out after 19 years on the force because he spoke out at an Oct. 12, 2006, public forum – telling the 120 or so people there that he believed race-related problems within the department were behind the “persecution” of his friend and colleague, then-Deputy Chief Robert Hall.
Hardy is white and Hall is black.
Hall was caught up in a professional disaster after he got involved with a hit-and-run investigation and released the suspect, who was the son of church friends.
Ultimately, Hall was suspended, demoted, indicted and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges to avoid possible prison time. Then he resigned his job.
Hardy’s speech came during a state criminal investigation of Hall just a few weeks before he was indicted.
“I feel vindicated and I’m happy the truth finally got to come out,” Hardy said after the late-morning verdict in which he received $300,000. His case against the city began Monday in federal court.
Hall, who testified twice during the trial, praised Hardy after the verdict as a “big brother,” saying his friend “was there for me.”
“He put his career, his family, everything on the line for me,” Hall said. “We have been waiting for this day for a long time.”
Hall heads security at Toyota’s Blue Springs plant.
City attorney John S. Hill voiced his disappointment at the verdict for Hardy and the damages awarded for lost wages and emotional distress.
“While we respect the verdict, we also believe the chief made a decision that he believed was in the best interests of Tupelo Police Department,” Hill added, saying an appeal seems likely.
He said defense counsel has “a number of issues” to consider, but he thought immediately after the verdict wasn’t an appropriate time to talk about it.
Hardy’s attorney, Jim Waide of Tupelo, said any appeal will be only about legal issues, not that the jury agreed Hardy had been driven from his job. Shane McLaughlin assisted Waide and made a powerful closing argument for Hardy’s side late Thursday.
“If the Police Department could silence the only people who know what’s going on,” McLaughlin said, “the First Amendment couldn’t mean a thing.”
Waide termed the verdict “a good thing for the city of Tupelo.”
“I believe the new mayor wants to make changes,” Waide speculated, saying this verdict will put some wind at the back of the city’s leaders who want change within police and other departments.
The jury, with one black member, decided Hardy deserved $100,000 for lost wages and $200,000 for mental anguish. In his suit, Hardy had requested back wages and compensation for distress, but did not seek reinstatement to the police force.
Chaffin removed Hardy from his job as internal affairs officer a few days after his speech, then five months later removed him from all other duties – which were extensive – and gave him a uniform job answering Tupelo apartment calls.
Chaffin and others tried to convince the jury the new job was special and would have been headed by Hardy because he had experience working with apartment managers in a crime-prevention program.
City attorneys, including Berkley Huskison, insisted Hardy’s speech was reckless and false, which would have removed his First Amendment free-spech protection.
As he left the U.S. District Courthouse just before noon Friday, Hardy said his only plans were to go home and try to relax after nearly three years of stress and strain.
“I’m just going to take some time to be with my family and be normal again,” he said.
The legal process also enlightened him.
“It’s amazing to see how the system works,” he said. “It’s humbling.”
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal