ABERDEEN – If former Tupelo Police Capt. Cliff Hardy’s lawsuit goes to trial, it’s likely a jury and the public will hear testimony about racial bias in the Tupelo Police Department.
Hardy sued the city of Tupelo in February 2008, claiming he was pushed out of a leadership role because of an October 2006 speech he made in support of then-Assistant Chief Robert Hall.
Hardy’s speech, at a city racial reconciliation meeting five months after Hall’s indictment, accused TPD of a double standard for what white and black police could do. Hardy is white and Hall is black.
Ultimately, Hardy was reassigned and retired rather than work in what he believed to be a menial post.
At issue is whether Hardy’s speech was protected under the First Amendment and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits employment retaliation for public speech.
Hardy’s attorney, Jim Waide of Tupelo, says it is.
The city’s attorney, Berkley Huskison, says Chief Harold Chaffin was right to demote Hardy for “reckless” criticisms that undermined the department’s operation and morale during the investigation of Hall.
U.S. District Judge Aycock presided over Wednesday’s hearing on arguments about the city’s motion to dismiss the case. She said she will rule July 3.
But her questions to the attorneys hinted toward sending the case to trial, set for July 20 in Aberdeen.
A key issue may turn out to be the veracity of Hardy’s speech, in which he said Hall was being persecuted because of his race.
“Must the court undertake that?” the judge said, voicing deep concern with expanding the scope of the issues. “We must understand what he meant by being persecuted.”
Hardy claims some white officers were jealous of Hall and feared he could become chief if Chaffin retired.
“A jury’s focus needs to be on what event led up to his speech and to the speech,” Aycock said during a series of questions she posed to better understand the circumstances surrounding the event.
In 2006, Hall came under fire after a driver’s family, who were his friends, called him to an accident scene involving a bicycle rider and a vehicle.
In a sworn deposition, TPD officers say they had the discretion – “professional courtesy” – to hold or send home DUI suspects, and some policeman at the scene said they smelled alcohol on the driver.
Criticism of Hall came after he sent the man home and turned his vehicle over to the family. Ultimately, Hall was demoted, indicted and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor charges.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal