City must address needs at NPD

Published 12:12 am Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A nightmare spanning nearly two and a half years, and, hopefully, costing at least a few City of Natchez employees some sleep has finally ended.

But with the sheets kicked off and our eyes wide open, we now know at least some of the nightmare was true.

A former Natchez Police officer is headed to prison, and the community the department protects won’t soon forget the allegations against another officer.

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Dewayne Johnson was sentenced Tuesday to 12 months in prison for the 2009 theft of Jason Ellard’s credit cards and 30 months for conspiracy to use the credit cards.

Neither Johnson nor fellow officer Elvis Prater were found guilty of the alleged beating of Ellard, the crime at the center of the credit card charges.

Prater is back on the job. Johnson must report to jail by October.

The police department’s black eye will begin to fade with time, but too many local residents who should have trust in their men in blue seem to have lost that loving feeling months and months ago.

Whether the Prater/Johnson case was the cause or just an aggravating factor, the damage is done.

The sheriff has said that his department now receives an increase in the number of calls from inside the city limits, and many residents will tell you they simply don’t trust NPD to get the job done when a crime occurs.

Even downtown cat owners feel Natchez Police have been too hesitant to get involved in recent cat killings.

Elected city leaders — in an attempt to cut the budget — recently questioned whether the department was overstaffed.

Low starting salaries — under $25,000 a year — have long been blamed for a high rate of turnover and a lack of dedication to the department.

And the hands-off management style of the last few years within the department makes me wonder if anyone even cares.

I know there are great officers and great detectives at the NPD. The city’s leadership needs to believe that too, and, more importantly, show it.

Instead of briefly touching on the staffing at the department in a budget hearing just a few days before the budget was to be passed, why can’t city leaders begin an in-depth look at the police department, how it is run, how it is staffed, what crimes it handles, what equipment it has and how it is funded?

Then, aldermen could share the results of that study with the public in a fact-based report, not a politically posturing campaign.

At that point, leaders would be informed enough to make an appropriate decision about department staffing and salaries.

And they’d be ready to either throw full support behind one of the state’s best law enforcement agencies or begin a serious conversation with county leaders about consolidating the police department into the sheriff’s office so local taxpayers aren’t funding two agencies to respond to the same calls.

Either option is likely a good one — depending on the circumstances — but continuing to linger in limbo and doubt does no good for the city, it’s residents or the men and women putting their lives on the line daily.

Politics aside, our aldermen and mayor are elected to help manage the city. Managers must understand every angle of the day-to-day operations to effectively lead.

They must get their hands dirty.

It’s time to take a closer look at the police department.

Julie Cooper is the managing editor of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at 601-445-3551 or