Justice: Appointing police chief OK

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 5, 2000

Natchez’s decision to appoint its police chief has been approved by the U.S. Justice Department — 30 years later. Last September, the Justice Department told city officials the 1968 switch from an elected to appointed police chief was never precleared by the department as required by the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

&uot;We are extremely pleased with the Justice Department’s actions,&uot; Mayor Larry L. &uot;Butch&uot; Brown said. &uot;We made a commitment to public safety and crime reduction in taking office in 1992, and the decrease in crime, as noted in annual reports since 1993, we believe to be a reflection of the commitments and efforts of this administration, our police department and its leadership, including the office of chief of police.&uot;

Last year, Adams County resident Charles Sanders told the Justice Department he suspected the city never had the police chief change cleared. He has said he and other residents tried to get the city to switch back to an elected police chief.

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Sanders could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

While the Justice Department does not oppose the change to an appointed police chief, a lawsuit could still be filed to try to get the decision reversed.

Current city officials have said they don’t why the request for preclearance was never made.

Tony Byrne, who was mayor when the change occurred, has said the decision was made because city officials feared someone without law enforcement experience would be elected police chief. Byrne thought at the time that the change had been cleared.

Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act requires that any changes in voting be approved by the Justice Department.

When current city officials found out the city had never gotten pre-clearance of the change, City Attorney Walter Brown submitted a packet of documents including board of aldermen minutes and ordinances, newspaper articles and election results. He said this was the first &uot;post-clearance&uot; he’s ever requested from the Justice Department.

A Stennis Institute survey found that less than 20 of the Mississippi’s 292 municipalities have elected police chiefs, Brown said.

Police Chief Willie Huff said he was relieved to hear the decision. Although there was a challenge to the ordinance allowing for an appointed police chief, the incident did not affect Huff’s tenure in office or his power as police chief.

&uot;It’s been on the back of my mind,&uot; Huff said. &uot;I’m glad it’s been resolved favorably and we can get back to long-term law enforcement for the city.&uot;

Natchez’s police chief is now chosen by the Civil Service Commission, who get suggestions from aldermen.

Emily Whitten contributed to this report.