Brookhaven’s move to elected chief: Why make the change now?

Published 4:55 pm Thursday, April 6, 2023

Leadership should be determined by qualifications, not popularity, according to the Brookhaven alderman who introduced a motion to make the city’s chief of police an appointed, rather than elected, position.

At its first meeting of April, Brookhaven’s Board of Aldermen voted 3-1 to change the position of Chief of Police to an appointment.

The motion was introduced by Don Underwood, Alderman-at-large. Underwood said it was an issue he ran on when he sought the city position.

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“I was always straight up from the beginning that I supported an appointed chief. We have had some good chiefs,” Underwood said. “The problem with an elected chief now is you wind up with it being a popularity contest. It’s who can get the most votes and not about the intricacies of running a police department, which has become more and more complicated.”

The former attorney said a broader pool is needed from which to select a candidate than just whoever decides to run for the office.

“You need someone with administrative experience, and it’s hard to get that coming up through the ranks in a small department,” he said. “We can appoint someone from Brookhaven, in the department, or from the other side of the country. We just need a qualified applicant.”

The alderman said statistics are telling when it comes to the number of cities that still elect a chief in the State of Mississippi. Only 3.1 percent — nine of 287 municipalities — still elect a police chief; the number dropped to 2.8 percent Tuesday night.

“I have been open about this. I have talked about this. Some things should not be a popularity contest. I think chief of police, especially,” he said. “And if they’re not doing the job, you need to be able to change.”

Underwood said he understands the inevitable objection that appointment takes away a citizen’s right to vote.

“I understand that, but when you vote, your selection pool is not dependent upon who is qualified, but on who decides to run,” he said.

“This will be for the next board to make this appointment, whoever is elected for the next board. I assume you’ll put it out there for resumes, but you’ll also go looking. Look internally, certainly. This is the first time doing it, so you would be finding your way. I think any board voting on this would want the biggest pool they can get,” Underwood said.

As to the timing of making the change now, the alderman said he’s had people asking why it had not changed already.

“To do it now, I think, is only fair to the candidates who have been planning to run in the next election.”