UPDATE: Tupelo police chief takes the stand

ABERDEEN – Tupelo Police Chief Harold Chaffin didn’t stop former Deputy Chief Robert Hall from releasing a hit-and-run suspect three years ago despite knowing it was about to happen.
Chaffin told jurors in the U.S. District Court on Wednesday that he simply suggested to Hall that he not release Jamison Shells after a May 28, 2006, accident.
“My statement was, ‘You don’t need to get involved in this,’” Chaffin said he told Hall in a phone call, adding that it was not an order.
Chaffin testified in a federal lawsuit brought by former Tupelo Police Capt. Cliff Hardy.
Hardy claims the department leadership pushed him out after he spoke in Hall’s defense at an Oct. 12, 2006, public forum about racial reconciliation.
On Day Three of the trial, Hardy’s attorneys tried to show that Hall was unfairly punished for releasing Shells, even though his actions were no different than those of other officers.
Such proof would support Hardy’s claim that he sincerely believed Hall was facing racial discrimination. Hardy is white; Hall is black.
City attorney Berk Huskison argued that Hardy’s side failed to provide proof of that claim and various others. He asked Judge Sharion Aycock to toss the case out of court.
Aycock rejected the city’s request and allowed the trial to proceed in front of eight jurors. They heard from Hardy, his wife, Chaffin and other officers.
Much of the testimony centered on Hall.
A few days after Shells’ release, Chaffin said he suspended Hall for not performing a “satisfactory job” in connection with the incident. The chief also asked the state Attorney General’s office to investigate.
That investigation found Hall’s actions questionable but not illegal, and Chaffin demoted Hall.
Hardy’s attorney, Jim Waide, asked Chaffin about “officer discretion” and “professional courtesy” – two terms referring to officers’ ability to decide whether to arrest or release suspects and whether to write or dismiss tickets.
Chaffin said the police department has no rules on the practices and that each officer makes those decisions on a case-by-case basis. The chief denied that Hall’s decision to release Shells was comparable to Chaffin’s role in getting a speeding ticket dismissed for District Attorney John Young a few years ago.
“That’s comparing apples to oranges,” Chaffin said, adding that Young was on official business when he was pulled over.
Young is the same attorney who presented evidence against Hall at the Grand Jury of Lee County in late 2006. Based on Young’s case, the grand jury indicted Hall on three felony charges: obstruction of justice, accessory after the fact and perjury.
Hall was suspended and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor versions of the first two charges; the third charge was dropped. Hall received fines and suspended jail sentences. He also resigned from the police force.
Waide then grilled Tupelo Police Capt. D.C. Washington about an incident in which Washington released a suspect instead of jailing him. The 2004 event involved the son of a high-profile businessman accused of beating a police officer. Washington took the suspect to a mental health facility.
Washington said it’s not improper for an officer to release his own suspect, but it would be improper to release one that had already been jailed by a colleague. Hall had released Shells even though he’d been taken to jail by another officer.
And no one on the witness stand said they could recall an officer – except Hall – who was criminally charged for having used discretion in releasing a suspect.
Washington and another police captain, Ken Vaughn, were called to testify on behalf of the city. Both said their subordinates complained that Hardy’s speech defending Hall signaled Hardy lost his objectivity.
Hardy was an internal affairs officer at the time of the speech, and part of his job was to investigate claims against fellow police officers. Washington and Vaughn said officers worried they might “not get a fair shake” from Hardy based on statements made in his speech.
The speech denounced the investigation of Hall and claimed racism existed in the police department.
The city rested its case late Wednesday. Closing arguments are likely late Thursday morning.

Contact Emily Le Coz at (662) 678-1588 or emily.lecoz@djournal.com.

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Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal