By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson, confronted Monday by accusations that his department lacks sufficient racial diversity in its leadership, claimed his accusers were trying to intimidate him.
The reason, he said, was his role as chairman of the state board that hears law enforcement certification appeals, one of which could involve Tupelo Deputy Police Chief Robert Hall.
“This is a direct attack against me because of my appointment to the Board of (Law Enforcement Officers) Standards and Training,” Johnson said in a prepared statement after complaints were aired by the Coalition of African-American Organizations at a Lee County Board of Supervisors meeting.
Afterward, Johnson told the Daily Journal that Mayor Jack Reed Jr. has repeatedly “demanded” that the sheriff help Hall get recertified in a way that Johnson said violates his ethics.
Reed acknowledged later in a statement that he had talked to the sheriff about Hall, but called Johnson’s reference to demands being made “a blatant mischaracterization of our conversations. I certainly have directly asked him for his help if the application comes forward because I’m convinced this would be best for our citizens.”
The Coalition of African-American Organizations said Johnson had little diversity in the upper echelon of his staff and demanded a remedy by the Board of Supervisors.
If the board refuses, said group spokesman Kenneth Mayfield, members will file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.
Mayfield and two others spoke out against the Sheriff’s Department. They also denounced Lee County’s Justice Court, saying the staff is rude and unhelpful and that the judges aren’t available as often as they should be.
“The African-American community is fed up with some of the activities in Lee County,” said Jim Agnew, “especially those in Justice Court.”
No one person is in charge of Justice Court, whose judges are elected and whose clerks are hired by the Board of Supervisors. Board members did not respond directly to the allegations but said they would look into them.
Johnson responded by reading a prepared speech, but he didn’t directly address the racial allegations. Instead, he said the group’s members appeared at the meeting to intimidate him.
The Board of Standards and Training holds hearings for officers whose professional certification has been denied by the state. And it’s likely to hear the case of Hall, who is black.
Hall lost his certification when he resigned from the force in 2007 after pleading guilty to misdemeanors resulting from his release of an intoxicated hit-and-run suspect a year earlier. He was rehired more than two months ago.
The city hasn’t yet applied for Hall’s recertification. But Johnson said Reed has repeatedly requested in person, by phone and in letters that Johnson help Hall get re-certified.
Johnson said he can’t do anything outside of the official protocol and to do so would violate his own ethical standards.
Protocol requires the city request Hall’s certificate. If the state approves, Johnson’s board would not be involved. If it denies the certificate based on information in Hall’s file, the city would then appeal that decision to the board and a hearing would be held.
The 12-member board then hears the evidence and votes up or down.
Police Chief Tony Carleton said the city has not applied for recertification because Hall performs an administrative role, focusing on policy, procedure and community relations. Recertification would give Hall the authority to make arrests.
Reed said in a press release that he has “conferred with Sheriff Johnson on his thoughts on this matter” but nothing more.
“On one occasion I called and asked if I could come to his office and visit with him about it,” Reed said. “On another occasion we were both speakers at the North Mississippi Homemakers Meeting and I asked him his thoughts on it after the meeting. I have treated our talks as confidential conversations between two people who care about the city and the county, and have responsible leadership positions, and are expected by the citizens to do our best at our jobs.”
Johnson also addressed rumors that he personally has prevented Hall from getting his recertification, which he deemed untrue.
“I will not be harassed or intimidated by any group to do anything other than what I believe is right,” Johnson told the audience of more than 50 people.
Many of those in attendance said they were disappointed by Johnson’s response and accused him of ignoring the real issue: diversity.
“He took this as personal, but he’s an elected individual,” said Tupelo resident Jim Casey. “This issue isn’t going away, and those comments just inspired us to take it to the next level.”
When asked about the diversity concern after the meeting, Johnson said he has nothing to hide and noted that the coalition’s employment statistics came directly from his website.
“I hire the best qualified people that come before me,” Johnson said. “I don’t base it on race. That’s just not the way I hire.”
Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or firstname.lastname@example.org.