TUPELO – When voters went to the polls earlier this month in five northeast Mississippi cities, residents got to choose their police chief or town marshal. Two more towns will have similar votes next month in the general election.
Electing police chiefs was once the norm, but it is now the exception in Mississippi.
Out of 275 police chiefs across the state, the vast majority are appointed. Just 11 elected positions (4 percent) remain in the Magnolia State, and most of those are in the northeast corner of the state – Aberdeen, Amory, Baldwyn, Corinth, Houston, Iuka, Nettleton, New Albany and Okolona. The other two elected chiefs are in Brookhaven and Forest.
Across the Mississippi River in Louisiana, most police chiefs are still elected. While police chief elections happen primarily in smaller towns. San Angelo, Texas, a city with a population of more than 100,000, still elects its chief.
The arguments can run passionate on both sides of the issue, appointed vs. elected.
“Personally, I would only want to be an elected police chief,” said Aberdeen Police Chief Henry Randle, who was elected to a third term in 2016. “That way you are in control of the police department, not the mayor and board of aldermen.”
Most Mississippi municipalities operate under a mayor and board of aldermen system. In most of those cases, the police chief does not have the authority to hire and fire officers. That authority lies with the aldermen.
“I still can’t appoint officers to positions, so (switching to appointed) didn’t change much,” said Ripley Police Chief Scott White, a former assistant chief who was named the city’s first appointed chief in 2009. “Appointments and any hiring and firing have to be approved by the board (of aldermen).
“The only thing I can do is suspend someone with pay. I can’t even suspend someone without pay without board approval.”
Appointed vs. Elected
The main differences between appointing and electing chiefs comes down to geography and qualifications.
Elected chiefs have to live within the city limits. There is usually no requirement that the candidate be a certified officer to run. If elected, they have two years to gain that certification. Supporters argue that hometown folks know the community and are better suited to lead the department.
Appointed chiefs can come from anywhere. Boards advertise the position and can require a certain level of experience to be considered. Proponents say that police are just like any other city department, and other department heads – like fire chiefs – are appointed.
Oxford Police Chief Joey East was appointed, but his father is the elected sheriff of Lafayette County.
“I can see both sides,” East said. “With an elected official, you don’t have to rely on a mayor and board so there is not as much politics. With appointed chiefs, you can go out and find the best person to lead the department, whether they live in the city limits or not.”
Supporters of elected chiefs say because they have four years of job security, they are free to do their jobs without worrying about the interference of small town politics. On the other hand, an appointed chief serves at the will of a mayor and board, providing a constant degree of accountability.
“In appointed, you have to stay in the good graces of the mayor and board,” Randle said. “We all know how politics work. You could arrest the child or relative of a board member. Then all they would need is a 3-2 vote and you could be out of a job.
“In an elected position, you know you’ve got a job for four years. There is a lot of job protection. Only you as chief can get out of the job before the term is up.”
That came up 10 years ago in Ripley when then chief Bert Conely was indicted on federal drug charges.
“People get the idea that going to appointed takes power away from the citizens,” Scott said. “That’s not the case, especially if you have a chief who messes up. It takes an act of congress to remove an elected chief. It’s an advantage to have an appointed chief in that case, because the board can remove him, without having to wait for the next election.”
But even with appointed chiefs, their jobs are often tied to elections.
“A lot of chiefs change when there is a new mayor elected,” Randle said. “The new mayor will bring in a new chief.”
East, who is also the president of the Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police, agreed. He said the state organization always sees several new faces following an election year.
Sign of the times
As recently as four decades ago, most city department heads were elected positions, including police chiefs, street commissioners and personnel directors. Tupelo began appointing its police chief in 1980. It was not until the city switched to a mayor-council form of government in the early 1990s that the chief gained the power to hire and fire employees.
In the last decade, there have been several pushes that saw cities switch to appointed police chiefs. Ripley and Saltillo were among the towns that changed in 2009. Three years later, was was another push that saw both Amory and Aberdeen ponder the issue.
In late 2012, the Amory and Aberdeen boards voted to change to appointed. Citizens complained that the aldermen were taking away people’s voting rights and the decision was reversed weeks later.
“There are more than 250 police chiefs in the state and only a handful are elected,” East said. “I know the issue comes up every so often. I think eventually, they will all move to appointed.
“We (MACP) have no intention to push that. We will let the municipalities decide. If there is a statewide push, it will have to come from the legislature.”
In recent years, the legislature has passed laws to make some formerly elected positions into appointed positions – in particular city clerks and school superintendents.