TUPELO • Rampant cronyism, workplace sexism, biased policing – a new lawsuit has again raised the specter of these allegations brought by some former officers against the Tupelo Police Department.
Since 2016, Tiffany Gilleylen, Jennifer Baker and now Michael Russell have together sued TPD four times, with the city thus far settling three of those suits. Filed on Jan. 3, Russell’s suit remains ongoing.
All those suits have revolved around employment claims, including alleged workplace discrimination involving promotions, terminations and transfers.
“It’s a culture. Women aren’t equal in law enforcement,” Gilleylen said. “Working in that environment is tough. You have to fight and scratch to prove your worth.”
Of wider implications for public policy, these suits have also alleged that senior leadership within the department, especially Capt. Tim Bell, have maintained and enforced a ticket quota system, even if only informally.
TPD has for decades battled recurrent claims around its internal culture and enforcement tactics, with the recent bout of suits opening a protracted window into department rifts.
Thus far, court settlements have cut off any chance for a comprehensive public airing of those questions while also keeping city officials quiet, even as the latest legal action by Russell pushes the issue back into the public eye.
But with their suits now concluded, Gilleylen and Baker recently sat for interviews with the Daily Journal to speak openly about their experiences.
Gilleylen, an officer with more than 20 years experience when she retired last year, alleges that she lost out to a less qualified candidate for a promotion to sergeant.
“My problem was not being able to be promoted as an African American,” Gilleylen said.
She later made the rank of sergeant while her first discrimination suit was still ongoing, but again sued for alleged discrimination relation to a promotion to the rank of lieutenant.
Baker, who is white, claims that qualifications for promotions were routinely rewritten and tailored to boost preferred candidates and freeze out other candidates, like herself. She believes this stymied her efforts to make detective.
“They are just moving the goalposts, depending on who they want,” Baker said.
Baker lived for a time in California and started work at TPD with military experience in the Navy, but was fired in 2017 after four years in the department. TPD alleges she was fired for fabricating reasons for traffic stops and targeting minorities. At a civil trial that ended abruptly last year because of a settlement, Police Chief Bart Aguirre called Baker “a rogue cop.”
Baker says she applied the law evenly, across the city, and that her firing was retaliation because she openly opposed aspects of the department’s tactics.
“I have no idea where the rogue cop thing came from,” Baker said. “I think they needed a narrative to get rid of me.”
To bolster their claims about ticket quotas, Gilleylen and Baker point to several emails unearthed by their civil suits.
In one, Bell, who is captain over the patrol division, appears hesitant about the prospects of promoting a particular officer, and points to that officer’s ticket writing statistics.
“I agree he is a good officer, however, hard to go fight for him when he works 14 days this months and turns in 7 tickets,” Bell wrote in a 2016 email.
In another email, Bell complains about the monthly enforcement statistics of a shift.
“If you can’t be proactive, I will get you in a zone that you will have to work,” Bell wrote.
Even if quota expectations were not a matter of written policy, Gilleylen said the expectations were clear within the patrol division.
“They would call you in if you didn’t have enough,” Gilleylen said.
Other former officers agree with the assessment of Gilleylen and Baker.
“There has been pressure from up top to write more tickets,” said James Hood in a 2017 deposition. He was a lieutenant over a patrol shift at the time of the deposition, but is now retired.
Hood identified Bell as the source of this pressure. He added that the then-Deputy Chief Allan Gilbert required “two pieces of paper a day.”
“That could be warnings; it can be reports; it can be alarm sheets. It could be any of that stuff,” Hood said in the deposition.
At Baker’s civil trial last year, former and current officers Keith Bowdry, Tremaine Frison and James Andrews also testified that there was pressure to write more tickets.
TPD leadership has long denied that any quota exists or that any informal pressure to write tickets exists.
“There are no quotas,” Aguirre said in a 2017 deposition. “We don’t give quotas because it’s not professional to do such a thing.”
In the same deposition, Aguirre said he was unaware of any instance in which Bell had attempted to block the promotion of any officer over concerns about the number of tickets written.
Last week, key City Hall figures declined to respond to any claims made by Gilleylen and Baker.
However, Chief Operations Officer Don Lewis did offer assurances that the city considers all criticisms or complaints and responds appropriately.
“We as a city don’t take these lawsuits lightly,” Lewis said. “If there are issues we are going to look to correct them.”
These suits have also highlighted claims that Aguirre is a figurehead atop the police department, and, that until his recent departure last month, former Deputy Chief Gilbert effectively ran the department.
“Gilbert runs everything,” Gilleylen said.
Allegations of passive leadership are aired in the Russell suit, which is still in its early stages.
“As Chief, Aguirre has allowed Defendant Gilbert to make the decisions at the police department,” Russell’s suit claimed.
The suit went to claim that “Chief of Police Aguirre is naive about Defendants Gilbert’s and Bell’s discriminatory and retaliatory actions” and offered the view that Russell believed “Chief Aguirre would never take any corrective actions against Defendant Gilbert.”
A lawsuit only represents one side of a legal argument, and the decision to settle is often made by the city’s liability insurance carrier.
In all suits brought by Gilleylen, Baker and Russell, the plaintiffs have been represented by Tupelo attorney Jim Waide.