Turbulence at Meridian Police Department

Published: Sep. 29, 2020 at 6:43 PM CDT
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MERIDIAN, Miss. (WTOK) - There are serious problems that have crippled the Meridian Police Department this year- officer arrests, demotions, terminations, resignations, staffing issues, low morale and a lack of overall leadership. When did the problems surface, why are they happening and who’s responsible?

Newscenter 11 took an in-depth look at these issues which are threatening to undermine public safety here in the Queen City in a special assignment, “Under Fire.”

2020 has been a challenging year for the Meridian Police Department.

We’ll go into detail shortly, but here’s an overview of the problems within the police department that have made local news headlines this year:

Unstable leadership

Federal indictments

A DUI arrest

A high profile termination

“This has been a period of time that is tough on the police department from a leadership standpoint and a stability standpoint. This is because we have not had a person in that full-time chief role. Yes, it causes a disruption in the department,” said Mayor Percy Bland.”

Bland said he takes responsibility.

“As many of these things have happened, we’re going to address them. We’re going to improve and we’re going to move forward. You have my word as mayor those things are going to happen,” said Bland.

The problems appeared to have first surfaced publicly in January when veteran Police Chief Benny Dubose abruptly resigned. Dubose served the police department for more than 30 years and was chief of police for 14.

Dubose brought much-needed stability and veteran leadership to east Mississippi’s largest police department.

In April, four former and current police officers were indicted on federal theft and embezzlement charges. The federal indictment alleges Meridian Police Captain Jay Arrington, former sergeant Dareall Thompson, former officer Erica Harmon and Officer Tenesia Evans embezzled and converted city funds for their own personal use. The defendants pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

In May, former police Captain John Griffith, who was on the shortlist to be named chief of police, was demoted to lieutenant for not reporting a racial slur that was used by an officer under his command. The officer, Joey Lawn, allegedly called an African American colleague the N-word while at a law enforcement training event in Alabama in 2018. Lawn was fired in June.

Then in August, Lt. Griffith was arrested in Orange Beach, Alabama, and charged with DUI. Griffith immediately resigned.

Also in August, another high profile federal indictment, this time involving a former officer accused of fixing traffic tickets in exchange for cash. Roy Benamon was charged with extortion for allegedly taking the cash bribes from drivers on two different traffic stops.

“I’m shocked that Officer Roy has the hammer coming down on him like he does,” said a local young man who did not want to give his name.

We talked to several people about the problems.

“I think the Meridian Police Department has been struggling for a while. I think there’s definitely a problem with corruption in the city of Meridian as far as the police department,” he said.

“I feel that corruption is a big issue in the department. I feel that what is going on is wrong. People need to know more about what is happening,” said a local.

“It is hard to be a police officer in today’s world, but at the same time, they need to be the example of what it is our community embodies,” said local.

In September, the city reinstated veteran officer Lt. Rita Jack after she was fired in August. The Civil Service Commission found no evidence Jack misused the city’s computer system as was alleged by city leaders. Jack retained her rank of lieutenant.

“We need a permanent chief. We need one with new ideas that will continue the values this community holds sacred,” said Ward 1 Councilman George Thomas.

One of the problems facing Meridian police is lack of leadership. As we mentioned earlier in this report, there have been three police chiefs, acting chiefs or interim chiefs since Chief Dubose resigned in January.

Lewis Robbins was named interim chief in February but resigned in April.

Charles Coleman then took over as interim chief, but Coleman also resigned. Coleman’s last day on the force was July 31st

Lieutenant Patrick Gale now serves as acting chief of police.

“I have tried to move forward with two interim chiefs, Chief Robbins and Chief Coleman. I thought both of them would do a great job if they would be given the opportunity to serve as full chief, but they did not get the three votes to move forward,” said Bland.

“The good thing about it is that we are getting rid of those people who need to be removed from the police department,” said Thomas.

Pastor Odell Hopkins served the city for nearly 30 years as police chaplain and served under four mayors. Hopkins says he’s disappointed in what’s happening and hopes there will be some stability within the department soon.

“This is my philosophy. Mayor Percy Bland, or the police chief never intended to hire anyone that would embarrass them. That is no real leader’s aim or ambition to hire someone that will embarrass them. Unfortunately, you get some people who are not who they say they are. The process works itself out because if they don’t, then you have an avenue to dismiss them,” said Hopkins.

Crime is also a serious concern. Shootings, drive-bys, shots fired calls, burglaries and break-ins happen far too often in the Queen City.

The police department is also severely understaffed.

“We are making sure to the community that we are moving forward on hiring more officers so they can be visible in your community. We are in a big partnership right now with Mississippi Power as we put up security cameras throughout the city. That has been a major concern and we are knocking down dilapidated housing in your communities,” said Bland.

City leaders realize there’s a problem at MPD and tell us they are addressing it.

Mayor Bland said he and his administration are interviewing candidates right now for a permanent police chief. The city council will have to approve the mayor’s recommendation.

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