Natchez police are sworn to protect and serve, but at what cost?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 22, 2010

EDITOR’S NOTE: Initial research for this story was completed prior to last week’s news of the arrest of two Natchez police officers on federal charges. Regardless of the outcome of the case the issues brought to light by city employees and officials in these stories remain relevant.

NATCHEZ — The Natchez Police Department was among the first in the state to ride the technology wave, installing laptop computers in all its patrol cars and becoming the envy of its peers.

That was 14 years ago.

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The laptops are long gone, and so are the majority of the in-car VHS video and audio systems the NPD purchased in 2001. Now the NPD finds itself on the other side of envy, and an officer who wished to remain anonymous says the department is grossly under-equipped and underpaid.

“Law enforcement is the only thing that stands between order and chaos, yet we’re treated like a necessary nuisance, the proverbial red-headed stepchild,” the officer said.

“(The Natchez Board of Aldermen) has cut our budget so many times that we’re where we were 20 years ago in terms of equipment and manpower.”

According to city budget figures, the City of Natchez allotted the NPD $11,939 for equipment during the 1999-2000 fiscal year. The city allotted $4,327 for equipment during the 2008-2009 fiscal year.

Whether equipment funding is ample or scarce, police departments often depend on grants for significant purchases.

Police Chief Mike Mullins said grant monies were used to purchase the laptops and video and audio systems. Both technologies were installed during Police Chief Willie Huff’s tenure, 1993-2002.

Huff said the laptops were purchased via a Community Oriented Police Services matching grant. The video and audio systems were purchased via a $36,075 U.S. Justice Department law enforcement block grant.

“We were on the cutting edge of technology at that time,” Huff said. “As police chief, I took it upon myself to be aware of the grants that were available and applied for them.”

Mullins enlists the help of Capt. Tom McGehee to write and submit small grant applications. For larger, more complex grants, he enlists the help of the Southwest Mississippi Planning and Development District.

Mayor Jake Middleton and the board of aldermen hired SWMPDD after former City Grants Coordinator Brett Brinegar resigned last year. SWMPDD, which provides services to a 10-county area, does not charge the city for its services unless grants are awarded.

Mullins said several factors are considered when applying for grants, the most important being whether the city can provide matching funds if necessary.

“We need a grant writer,” Mullins said. “We’re always looking for grants, but none of us are grant writers.”

Mullins said the SWMPDD is preparing applications for two homeland security grants to purchase in-car digital video systems and laptops. Mullins estimates it will cost approximately $250,000 to outfit all patrol cars with a laptop.

Mullins said the laptops would allow officers to run instant records checks and complete type-written reports and submit them remotely, thus increasing officer time spent on the road. The digital video systems would protect officers from false accusations and complaints during routine stops.

“We get very few complaints, but when we do get complaints, (video systems) make it crystal clear what happened,” Mullins said.

The NPD was recently awarded a $48,000 federal grant to upgrade the city jail’s booking software at a cost of $30,000. The upgrade will allow the NPD to transfer files to the Adams County Sheriff’s Office, which eliminates rebooking, Mullins said.

The remaining grant amount — $18,000 — will be used to purchase surveillance cameras for the police facility and jail on D’Evereux Drive.

The NPD is currently the only law enforcement agency in the Miss-Lou that does not have Taser guns, which allow officers to subdue violent individuals without killing them and prevent officer injuries during scuffles.

However, Mullins said he has asked for $5,600 in next year’s city budget to purchase four Tasers with video cameras attached. Because the NPD operates in four shifts, each shift will be assigned one Taser. Future plans are to purchase more Tasers with grant monies.

The police officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Tasers can’t come soon enough to the NPD.

“You’d be surprised how much a Taser changes people’s attitudes,” the officer said. “We need Tasers now.”

Ward 2 Alderman James “Ricky” Gray, who chairs the city’s police committee, said officers have approached him about the department’s Taser-free existence.

“It’s not my job to say, ‘Y’all need Tasers? Y’all need this? Y’all need that?’ Officers have mentioned Tasers to me, but (Mullins) hasn’t said anything to me about Tasers,” Gray said.

“If he needs something, I’m going to bring it to the mayor and board and try to get it for him. If he doesn’t bring it to me, then I figure he doesn’t need it.”

Mullins has requested $20,000 of the city’s not-yet-approved 2010-2011 fiscal year budget for Tasers and a police dog. The department has a commander’s meeting every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. to discuss various topics. Gray has an open invitation to the meeting, but Gray only attends occasionally, Mullins said.

Mullins referred questions about grant specifics to SWMPDD. Executive Director Wirt Peterson said the NPD most often approaches the SWMPDD with a specific need; then SWMPDD begins its research.

“They let us know if they have a particular need, whether it’s police cars or additional personnel,” Peterson said. “Sometimes, (requests) comes from the mayor, the police chief or it may come from an individual on the force.

“If we know of something that is available through our contacts at the Department of Justice or other law enforcement agencies, we will notify the police departments in our area.”

The NPD received a $20,000 grant from the Mississippi Department of Public Safety for traffic and safety belt enforcement last October. Mullins said the grant paid for patrol overtime for traffic enforcement. Mullins said the NPD has applied for a $40,000 public safety grant this year.

Some police departments in the state have city grant coordinators on staff who assist the police department.

Vicksburg Grant Coordinator Michelle Smith said she works closely with Police Chief Walter Armstrong to research and apply for various grants.

“If we hear of a particular agency that has some funding available, we research it first, put the package together and most times we get approved,” Smith said. “We recently received a 50/50 match grant for bulletproof vests.”

In Columbus, Police Chief Joseph St. John said the department’s crime lab technicians are writing and submitting grants since the city’s grant coordinator stepped down.

Locally, the Vidalia Police Department writes and submits grants in-house, Police Chief Ronnie “Tapper” Hendricks said.

“We get updates on what’s out there and if we’re eligible,” Hendricks said. “It’s all about communication.”

ACSO Administrator Debbie Gee said the sheriff’s office also receives updates on grant opportunities, but hasn’t been successful in recent attempts.

Mullins said the NPD knows the difference between wants and needs such as patrol cars, guns and bulletproof vests. Though modern technologies prove beneficial for the force and the community, Mullins said raising officer salaries is his current No. 1 priority.