Expert opinion: Police department ‘in need of rebuilding’

Published 2:19 pm Thursday, September 21, 2023

In early August, the Brookhaven Board of Aldermen hired an independent expert to evaluate the police department and its operations. That evaluation is now complete, and city leaders have the expert’s findings and recommendations in hand.

The board hired police practices expert William “Bill” Harmening “to identify problems and deficiencies in … policies, practices and protocols, with the goal of shaping a more professional and effective department for the community it serves,” Mayor Joe Cox said at the time.

Cox said the expert would review all aspects of the department’s operation, including issues related to supervision, investigations, officer recruitment and retention, and community engagement. At the conclusion of his review, two other independent experts will review his findings, and a report will be submitted to the City.

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On Tuesday, Harmening reported to the board and mayor in a closed-door executive session both his findings and recommendations, along with the reviews from two additional, independent experts, professors Charlie Scheer of The University of Southern Mississippi School of Criminal Justice, Forensic Science, and Security; and Francis Danso Boateng of The University of Mississippi Department of Criminal Justice and Legal Studies, School of Applied Sciences.

The board voted to accept his report, and will make decisions in coming weeks on what changes it will seek to implement in the city’s law enforcement department.

Ward 6 Alderman Andre’ Spiller said he is interested to see how other members of the board will respond to Harmening’s recommendations, and if the aldermen who opposed moving from an elected to an appointed police chief will remain with that opinion.

“When we first did it, we knew that there was a problem, and that’s why we chose to go from elected to appointed,” Spiller said Wednesday. “Now that we have the findings, are we going to stay with going back to an elected position, as some want to do, or go with what the man said?”

Spiller, Ward 4 Alderman Jeff Henning, and Alderman-at-large Don Underwood voted in April to make the chief position an appointed one, mirroring the majority of municipalities in the state. Alderman Fletcher Grice, Ward 5, voted against. The other three aldermen abstained — James Magee Jr., Ward 1; Shannon Moore, Ward 2; and Rev. Charles Caston Sr., Ward 3. Moore, in a subsequent meeting, called for a vote to return to an elected position. All but the three who approved the initial move agreed. The reversal would only take place if the Office of the Attorney General approved the move. That approval came in a letter to attorney Bobby Moak on Sept. 14.

“Now I want to know what these other aldermen are going to do,” said Spiller. “This should affect their decision because they wanted to wait on the expert’s findings.”


Findings and recommendations

Harmening submitted a 33-page document to the City with a summary and six parts. “My evaluation included a review of the department’s policies and procedures, discussions with D.A. Dee Bates and certain BPD officers, as well as with Chief (Kenneth) Collins and most of his command staff. They were all cordial however, I was not allowed access to certain requested items, including personnel and investigative files.”

Harmening said he learned the department is “in need of rebuilding … sometimes it becomes necessary to draw a line in the sand and basically start over.” He said the effectiveness of the department is being impeded by five factors — a severe manpower shortage; a confusing and inefficient command structure; a lack of officer training; competency issues in its investigations unit; and a lack of integration with the two prosecutors’ offices they work with.”

In addition to recommendations to address those issues, Harmening recommended the creation of a police committee within the Board of Aldermen, composed of two aldermen, the mayor and the city attorney. He also supported the prior decision of the board to move to an appointed chief of police.

BPD’s departmental structure is not clearly defined, Harmening said, including several more officers of rank than patrolmen without rank, “just the opposite from how it should be unless policy allows for promotions based on longevity and job performance.” He recommended a codified policy of promotions based on command structure and time-in-service.

Harmening criticized the department’s hiring practices, saying, “BPD does not currently utilize a comprehensive and standardized hiring methodology … The BPD policy as currently written is problematic and not being followed.”

The reviewer also said two disciplinary policies are listed in BPD’s paperwork, but they conflict with one another, creating “a legal morass that is worse than having no policy at all.” Harmening also cited confusing and problematic statements in the department’s fitness for duty policy, recommending they be rewritten.

Harmening also made recommendations for changes in case management, especially when it comes to more efficient ways for the police and prosecutors to work together; and in general policies and procedures, such as specifications in use of force and how to interact with mentally ill individuals.

“There is probably not an issue in the BPD that needs more immediate attention than its Investigations Unit,” Harmening said.

He cited the recent mistrial of two men in an attempted murder case, “declared when it was disclosed in the testimony of a BPD detective that he had withheld important and potentially exculpatory evidence not only from the Defense, but also from the District Attorney. … this, along with (a critical) Grand Jury report, points to several problems with BPD’s investigative function.”

He summarized these as: qualifications and abilities — “There does not appear to be a process in place for identifying and appointed the most able officers to the position of detective;” supervision — “In the (mistrial) case, the supervisor of the detective who withheld evidence should be held just as accountable as the detective himself;” and integration — a major case squad should be created with the involvement of the police chief, municipal prosecutor, district attorney, and county sheriff.

Forming a police committee would create “a much more efficient system and would result in the full Board of Aldermen being much more integrated in the activities and mission of the BPD by having this conduit between them,” Harmening said.

Mayor Joe Cox released the following statement Thursday.

“Most recently, the City of Brookhaven was made aware of a Lincoln County grand jury report which addressed issues within the Brookhaven Police Department. To investigate the complaints made by the grand jury, the City Administration and Board of Aldermen hired, Mr. William Harmening, a recognized independent professional in policies and reviews of law enforcement agencies to complete a review of the department. He was joined by professors at the University of Mississippi and the University of Southern Mississippi Criminal Justice Programs to review all aspects of this independent review. On September 19, 2023, at a regular meeting the Board of Aldermen adopted his report and voted to retain Mr. Harmening to assist the City with updating the policies and procedures addressed in his review. We will continue to operate with transparency, efficiency and professionalism.”


Police response

Thursday evening, Chief Collins said the people who called for the review are the same ones who made the move away from an elected chief.

“This is the same group that tried to take your vote away. They spent an untold amount of taxpayer money to have this investigation, and they are not through yet trying to destroy your police department,” Collins said.

“They are trying to discredit and make the police department look incompetent, but the citizens of Brookhaven know better,” he said. “But they will fail because I didn’t elect myself. I was elected by the people. And they will never win because I bring God to the battle with me. One day they will have to answer to God for what they’ve done to this town. Because they can’t control me and the department, they’re trying to destroy us. We have had officers die to protect this town, and this is how they try to repay us?”

Collins said he will continue to work the final two years of his term to protect Brookhaven and its citizens.

Read a copy of the full report here.