Mississippi lawmakers propose measures to oversee police

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A proposal to address police misconduct in Mississippi came after an article that exposed decades of violence by a group of deputies in Rankin County. (Photo: Rory Doyle for The New York Times)

After news outlets uncovered 20 years of torture and other misconduct, lawmakers are considering changes that could bar corrupt officers from law enforcement.

By Brian Howey and 

Nate Rosenfield

JA Guest Writers

Brian Howey and Nate Rosenfield are examining the power of sheriffs’ offices in Mississippi as part of The Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship.

Mississippi lawmakers have introduced a bill that would increase oversight of law enforcement officers and give state authorities more power to punish misconduct after a series of scandals was uncovered across the state last year.

The law would give the state agency that certifies law enforcement officers the ability to investigate claims of police misconduct.

If lawmakers pass the bill, the Mississippi Board on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training will gain the power to respond directly to complaints or allegations, putting Mississippi on par with states that regulate officers more aggressively.

If the board ruled that conduct violated professional standards, it could revoke an officer’s certification, potentially ending that officer’s career in Mississippi.

Under current law, the board can accept complaints but cannot investigate them. The agency largely has focused on running criminal background checks on new officers applying for certification, ensuring they have met basic training requirements and tracking where officers work.

All Mississippi law enforcement officers are currently required to become certified except sheriffs, who are elected officials and are exempt from certification requirements.

The proposed law comes after The New York Times and Mississippi Today published a series of articles last year revealing allegations of sexual misconduct against two sheriffs and exposing a decades-long reign of terror by a group of Rankin County deputies who called themselves the Goon Squad.

Also last year, five Rankin County Sheriff’s Department deputies and a local police officer pleaded guilty to federal charges for breaking into the home of two Black men, torturing them, threatening to rape them and then shooting one of them in the mouth.

The revelations have led to increasing calls from the public for accountability.

In Rankin County, just outside Mississippi’s capital, Jackson, billboards have sprung up encouraging residents to report police brutality and hate crimes to the F.B.I. The local chapter of the NAACP has repeatedly demanded Sheriff Bryan Bailey’s resignation.

“They’re tasked with protecting and serving, but they’re not protecting and serving. They’re harassing, they’re terrorizing, they’re torturing,” said Cardell Wright, president of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. “We have to have oversight if we’re going to abate any of these issues that are happening in our communities.”

State Representative Fred Shanks, a Rankin County Republican who introduced the bill in January, said it would require all officers to complete annual training, a provision he said could improve community relations with the police and protect law enforcement agencies from lawsuits.

“This is both pro-law enforcement and pro-citizen,” he said. “The more training you have, the better you’re going to be.”

Mr. Shanks was personally impacted by one law enforcement officer’s actions in Rankin County.

According to an investigation by the local district attorney, Sheriff Bailey improperly used grand jury subpoenas in 2014 to obtain phone records belonging to his girlfriend, Kristi Pennington Shanks, who is Mr. Shanks’s ex-wife.

The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation examines police shootings, deaths in custody and other misconduct when a local department asks for help. Mr. Shanks’s proposal would add a second layer of oversight and could expand the kind of misconduct that is reviewed in a state that has historically resisted police oversight.

“It’s long overdue for Mississippi to change a lot of their policies, a lot of their training” related to law enforcement, said Representative Jeffrey Hulum III, a Democrat from Gulfport who said he planned to co-sponsor the measure with Mr. Shanks.

Mr. Shanks wrote the bill with Sean Tindell, the commissioner of the state’s Department of Public Safety. Mr. Tindell oversees several statewide law enforcement agencies, including the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation and the law enforcement training academy. Mr. Tindell said that while he and his colleagues had discussed changing the law in the past, the conduct brought to light in 2023 was a factor in pushing for the bill this year.

“I think it’s OK to look in the mirror and say, ‘Hey, maybe we need to make some changes,’ and this could be that opportunity where everybody feels the same way,” he said. “We can look at a bill like this as a way to improve the overall profession and the perception of that profession.”

Mr. Shanks said that if his proposed law had been in place, many of the events that became public in 2023 could have been investigated by the certification board, even if prosecutors did not bring criminal charges. In some of those cases, charging an officer was made difficult by statutes of limitation or the high bar of evidence required to win a criminal conviction.

Mr. Tindell said leaders of both the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association and the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police supported the new bill, giving it a healthy chance to reach the House floor for a vote. A House committee will decide whether to move the bill forward in the coming weeks.

State Senator Juan Barnett, a Democrat from Heidelberg, introduced another measure that could double criminal penalties for law enforcement officers who are convicted of abusing their power.

Legislators have not decided whether to hear that bill. Joey Fillingane, a Republican and the chair of the judiciary committee in the State Senate that will decide if the bill advances, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Barnett said the national push for greater accountability for law enforcement officers inspired him to sponsor the bill.

“We just want to make sure that people feel like they are getting protected and served by the men and women who are in uniform,” he said.

Taylor Vance contributed reporting.

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Mississippi lawmakers propose measures to oversee police

By Jackson Advocate News Service
March 3, 2024