Lawmen: Police must earn back trust

Published 12:04 am Tuesday, August 24, 2010

NATCHEZ — Few people deny that the arrest of two Natchez Police officers last week is a black eye for the department, the city and law enforcement in general.

But it’s what happens from here that perhaps matters most, area law enforcement officials said.

And restoring much-needed faith in law enforcement through strong leadership would be first on the agenda for several former crime fighters.

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Former four-term sheriff Tommy Ferrell said the public must realize, “There are bad apples in every barrel.”

“There is no way to prevent it,” he said. “People tend to forget that law enforcement officers are human, too. They are criticized more than a normal citizen, and rightfully so. They should have a higher standard.”

Former Natchez Police Chief Willie Huff agreed.

“Everyone needs to understand that this is just a small percentage of the total law enforcement officers in Natchez,” Huff said.

And, both men pointed out, that the public will simply have to wait on the court proceedings before truly passing judgment on the accused.

But with the arrests made, now is the time for city leaders to step up and reassure the public that law enforcement should be trusted, Ferrell said.

“They need to huddle up and exercise some manned-up leadership,” Ferrell said. “You’ve got to be aggressive. You’ve got to prove to the public that you’ve got a police force that can be trusted.”

Ferrell said the mayor and board of aldermen must get involved, even to the level of meeting with officers.

“You’ve got to reassure (other officers),” he said. “You’ve got to convince the personnel you are fully behind them and that you’ll support them.”

Huff said the police department needs to take a close look at itself and make sure whatever led to the arrest of officers Elvis Prater and Dewayne Johnson isn’t an acceptable culture in the department. Then, the department leaders must be ready to support their officers.

“Examine your internal controls, look at your training, do a self evaluation,” Huff said. “The leaders need to understand that just voicing support is not enough. There has got to be an understanding from leaders on what these folks face.”

Sheriff Chuck Mayfield said he has already had a few one-on-one discussions about the arrests with his deputies, because he expects they’ll feel a bit of the backlash.

“This does put a damper on things,” Mayfield said. “And it does hurt morale a bit. But we take extremely seriously the honesty of employees, and we are just going to make sure there is nothing we do that will sully our reputation. We have to watch what we are doing.”

Mayfield said professionalism is the best way to earn community support. And that support is crucial, Ferrell said.

“The general community has to support local law enforcement to maintain stability in the community,” Ferrell said. “Without the support of the community, law enforcement is ineffective.”

Alderman James “Ricky” Gray, who serves as chairman of the city’s police committee, said that support is what he’s encouraging constituents to have.

“The truth will come out,” Gray said. “There is no reason for the community to feel all the police are bad. They can still trust the police.”

But perhaps the men and women most affected by the arrests are those working at the Natchez Police Department.

Chief Mike Mullins said shift supervisors have been talking through the situation with officers, and department leadership is stressing that Prater and Johnson are innocent until proven guilty.

“It is tough for any department to go through a situation like this, but I remind the officers that we are out here to serve the public,” Mullins said. “In an organization this size, there are going to be problems. That’s why we have a criminal justice system.

“We are an organization of 73 full-time employees, counting dispatchers, jailers and others. Personnel problems come up on occasion.”

Mullins said the arrest of the officers — now on administrative leave with pay — has followed proper department procedure.

“The charges these two officers are facing are serious,” Mullins said.

“But it’s important to remember that we have policy and procedures to follow at the police department.”

Both officers Prater and Johnson face two counts of civil rights violations for the alleged May 2009 beating of two men they had reportedly arrested.

Prater faces one count of making false statements to federal investigators; Johnson faces two counts of the same charge.

Johnson also faces one count of conspiracy that alleges he stole credit and debit cards from the arrested man, obtained the PIN for the cards from the victim and called a relative to meet him at a store and make purchases.

The men made their initial court appearance Friday. Their next court date is Oct. 4.