TUPELO • National Police Week 2020 began on May 10 and ends on May 16. Established by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, Police Week honors the memory of police officers killed in the line of duty.
Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre has been with the Tupelo Police Department since 1985, and became chief in October of 2013. Aguirre said within a few months of his appointment as chief, one of his officers was killed and another seriously injured in the line of duty.
“I became chief in October,” he said. “And in December, I had an officer, Sgt. Gale Stauffer, gunned down and killed in the streets of Tupelo, and another, Officer Edward Maher, was critically injured.”
Aguirre said the TPD has recognized both Maher and Stauffer for their extraordinary valor.
“After that incident, for the first time we awarded a Purple Heart to Joseph Maher in recognition of his sacrifice,” he said. “And we presented Gale Stauffer’s wife, Beth, a Medal of Honor for Gale’s ultimate sacrifice.”
Aguirre said in those difficult early days as chief, he had to rely on sources outside himself for help.
“I had to turn to God for my strength,” he said. “I don’t know how you could do this job without faith. It was challenging and it pulled at my heartstrings, but I knew the department had to come together. I had to be there for the men and women of the police department, and for the community.”
Aguirre said he sees police work as a ministry and a calling.
“This job is definitely a ministry in itself,” he said. “Before I got into law enforcement, my family was in the restaurant business. But my wife finally said, ‘Are you happy?’ And I said, ‘I don’t see myself doing this for the rest of my life.’ She helped me seek out my real calling.”
Aguirre said his faith, and especially the biblical imagery of shepherding and serving others, helps him define his role.
“You have to serve your community and its leaders,” he said. “And you have to serve God in the process. We have a huge responsibility to shepherd our flock. We have to check up on them. It’s all about how we act towards them that determines how well our flock is doing.”
Deputy Chief of Police Jackie Clayton has been with the TPD for nearly 41 years. Like Aguirre, Clayton said his faith sustains him.
“I don’t know how anyone does this job without praying daily,” he said. “Prayer is the avenue to grace, and it gives you peace of mind. Police work is tough, and I’ve seen through the years that you have to stay focused, not just physically and mentally, but spiritually as well.”
Clayton, who has served as an elder at Northeast Church of Christ since 2006, said early in his marriage, his wife steered him in the right direction.
“I married a good woman,” he said. “And in 1978, she let me know in a kind way that whether I was interested in church or not, she was going. Having that guidance wasn’t an accident. I married the right person, otherwise I might have taken a totally different turn in life.”
Clayton said he’s learned that when it comes to leading others spiritually, there’s no substitute for authenticity.
“Jesus gave us the example of a servant leader,” he said. “That’s a big deal. If you talk about spiritual things but don’t set the right example, you’ll lose your audience, so to speak.”
Clayton said working directly with officers under his command taught him to watch for signs of distress.
“I ran a shift for 10 years,” he said. “You have 10-12 people under you. You grow close, and you get to know them very well. You spend more time with them than you do with your own family, and you can tell when someone is drifting or disconnecting.”
Clayton said it’s important for police officers to take time off and to care for themselves, physically, mentally, and spiritually.
“Police officers see a lot of good people,” he said. “But we also see people in the worst situations. We encourage our officers to take time off and get away and disconnect, where they’re not answering the phone or being distracted.”
Clayton said his own life, both on duty and off, is guided by a simple principle.
“Jesus is the master teacher,” he said. “We try to mirror that down to the ones we’re responsible for. If we’ll just do what he said, we’ll be alright.”