Pub­lic safety chief seeks to exit civil ser­vice

The Sun Herald - - Front Page - BY JEFF AMY

The leader of Mis­sis­sippi’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety wants to re­move the agency from the state civil ser­vice sys­tem for­ever.

Pub­lic Safety Com­mis­sioner Mar­shall Fisher says he’s been forced to re­in­state a num­ber of of­fi­cers after what he con­sid­ers “ter­ri­ble” de­ci­sions by the state Em­ployee Ap­peals Board that over­turned agency dis­ci­plinary de­ci­sions.

But Tommy Simp­son of the South­ern States Po­lice Benev­o­lent As­so­ci­a­tion says what would be ter­ri­ble is de­priv­ing of­fi­cers of due process.

It’s a new wrin­kle in the Repub­li­can-led Leg­is­la­ture’s low-grade dis­like of the Mis­sis­sippi State Per­son­nel Board and the civil ser­vice sys­tem that it ad­min­is­ters. Mul­ti­ple times in re­cent years, law­mak­ers have re­moved agen­cies from civil ser­vice pro­tec­tion for lim­ited pe­ri­ods, al­low­ing agency lead­ers to hire and fire as they please, usu­ally with the ex­pla­na­tion that an agency’s mis­sion has changed and it needs to be over­hauled.

Fisher, though, told mem­bers of the Se­nate Ap­pro­pri­a­tions Com­mit­tee last week that he can’t have any­one sec­ond-guess­ing his de­ci­sions to dis­ci­pline or fire em­ploy­ees.

“An agency di­rec­tor can’t run a law en­force­ment agency with­out dis­ci­pline,” Fisher said. “We’re not run­ning a day care cen­ter. It’s not rain­bows, roses and lol­lipops.”

Simp­son says of­fi­cers need pro­tec­tion from po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated de­ci­sions, and that was the rea­son the Leg­is­la­ture cre­ated civil ser­vice pro­tec­tions.

“It’s very im­por­tant for pub­lic safety of­fi­cers, par­tic-

ularly, to have due process, to where they are not sub­jected to the whims of pol­i­tics,” Simp­son told The As­so­ci­ated Press. “They need to be able to do their job and know as long as they do their job prop­erly that they will be pro­tected.”

The three-mem­ber Em­ployee Ap­peals Board hears from work­ers who think a state agency has done them wrong. Em­ploy­ees can ap­peal acts in­clud­ing sus­pen­sions, fir­ings, sus­pected dis­crim­i­na­tion, or re­tal­i­a­tion against whistle­blow­ers. A sin­gle board mem­ber hears each case. Peo­ple un­happy with de­ci­sions can ap­peal to the full board or to cir­cuit court.

An AP re­view of de­ci­sions in­volv­ing the Depart­ment of Pub­lic Safety since the be­gin­ning of 2017 found the depart­ment won three cases, lost five, and has one where the out­come re­mains un­cer­tain pend­ing fur­ther pro­ceed­ings.

For ex­am­ple, in a case in­volv­ing for­mer Trooper Di­noion Stutts, the board ini­tially found there was no le­gal sup­port for the depart­ment’s in­def­i­nite sus­pen­sion of Stutts with­out pay after he was charged with as­sault­ing a Tal­la­hatchie County sher­iff’s deputy and or­dered him re­in­stated with back pay. How­ever, the board up­held the depart­ment’s later fir­ing of Stutts after he pleaded guilty to as­sault.

The board re­in­stated Trooper James Richards after the depart­ment fired him for com­ing to the fir­ing range un­der the in­flu­ence of pre­scrip­tion drugs. The board found there would only be a vi­o­la­tion of state pol­icy if Richards had been tak­ing il­le­gal drugs.

The board re­in­stated Trooper Richard Todd Cox. The depart­ment had fired Cox for a 2010 as­sault charge against a man ac­cused of hav­ing an af­fair with Cox’s wife, the claim that Cox him­self had an af­fair with an­other trooper’s wife, and Cox’s wife fil­ing a tem­po­rary re­strain­ing or­der against Cox in May claim­ing as­sault. The hear­ing of­fi­cer found Cox’s tes­ti­mony re­but­ted the agency’s claims.

Fisher called the ap­peals board a “kan­ga­roo court” and said em­ploy­ees who are re­in­stated are dif­fi­cult to man­age.

“They get sent back to us to be put on the street and they’re bul­let­proof,” Fisher said. “They’re a su­per­vi­sor’s night­mare.”

Simp­son said his as­so­ci­a­tion doesn’t sup­port mis­con­duct but dis­putes Fisher’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tion.

“Our leg­is­la­ture has got plenty of lawyers and I think some of them need to go to the state Per­son­nel Board and fact-check the cases,” Simp­son said.

Jeff Amy has cov­ered pol­i­tics and gov­ern­ment for The As­so­ci­ated Press in Mis­sis­sippi since 2011. Fol­low him at http://twit­ter.com/jef­famy .

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