ABERDEEN • Tupelo Police Chief Bart Aguirre said former officer Jennifer Baker was a “rogue cop” who was “out of control” and writing “BS” tickets, so the department had no option but to fire her.
Aguirre was one of eight witnesses to take the stand Wednesday in Baker’s wrongful termination lawsuit trial at U.S District Court in Aberdeen. Chief Judge Sharion Aycock is presiding.
Baker worked for the Tupelo Police Department for almost four years and claims that her 2017 termination was in retaliation for her opposition to the department’s ticket writing policy and her speaking out about officers not being paid overtime. She is asking for reinstatement as well as minimal monetary damages.
During the second day of trial, defense attorneys showed the six-woman, two-man jury videos of five traffic stops Baker made. The videos were from an internal affairs investigation that led to the termination. Officials say the investigation started after citizen complaints and Baker commented to another officer that she would start pulling over the rich and elderly.
Aguirre said he felt Baker fabricated the probable cause needed to pull over the cars in most of the five instances. In four of the videos, Baker told the drivers they were being stopped for not using their turn signals. In one of the videos, the turn signals are clearly working. In two other videos, the patrol car’s dash camera is not pointed at the suspect’s vehicle when they turned.
“These are BS kind of tickets,” Aguirre said after watching the first three in court. “All three videos were of African Americans.”
After reviewing the videos and the internal investigation, Aguirre said they had to terminate Baker.
“The five videos did raise some concerns that we had a rogue cop,” Aguirre said. “We were worried we had an officer out of control so we called her in and terminated her.”
Other officers thought the five videos were cherry picked from a two-month period to intentionally show Baker in a bad light.
Former Tupelo officer Sgt. Chamila Brown, who now works for Amory PD, said she was called in after Baker was fired and viewed three of the videos with her immediate supervisors as well as the department’s top administrators.
“They wanted to show us their narrative of why she was fired,” Brown said, “so we could in turn relay it to others, lower ranking officers.”
Brown said that she was asked by her supervisor to review Baker’s tickets to see if she was targeting African American or the elderly. Of the 33 tickets, only six were issued to blacks and 10 people were over the age of 50.
“(In my opinion), it didn’t show a pattern,” Brown said.
After Aguirre, the other seven current and former Tupelo officers praised Baker and backed the idea that TPD has a ticket quota. Those officers called Baker professional, hard-working, a go-getter and someone who worked well with the community
One of the official reasons Baker was terminated was that she lied to the public when she told a driver and passenger that she was under pressure to write more tickets. While Aguirre said there is no quota, the officers said it is an unwritten rule they need to have at least two tickets a day. Nearly all identified the pressure for more tickets as coming from patrol division commander Capt. Tim Bell.
Tiffany Gilleylen, who retired in August as a captain, said as a shift supervisor she was told by Bell to make sure officers were writing tickets.
”I even received an email from Capt. Bell,” Gilleylen said. “At the top he wrote ‘What the F? and said our shift didn’t write enough tickets that month and he didn’t want to ever see that again.”
James Hood worked for TPD for 19 years, retiring as a lieutenant. He said he confronted Bell about the tickets, saying forcing officers to write more was wrong
”If they (the motorist) need a ticket, then write it,” Hood said. “Everybody makes mistakes but not everybody you stop needs a ticket.
”It’s officer discretion. I think you need to enforce the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law.”
Tremaine Frison, a 15-year veteran, said he has been pressured to write more tickets. His supervisor said “he was getting pressure from up top,” and he “had to get his numbers up.”
”I was once called in and counseled about my numbers,” Frison said.
The officers said “numbers” and “paper” were euphemisms for tickets.
”We were advised to have two pieces of paper per shift,” said former officer Keith Bowdry. “When I asked my supervisor who, he said Tim Bell.”
Bowdry even wrote a letter to the city’s Human Resources department for a grievance hearing to discuss “the quota for writing 30 tickets per month.”
The trial is expected to continue all week and could stretch into the following week.
Bell and deputy chief Allan Gilbert are expected to take the stand today. If time permits, Baker could begin testifying as well on today.
Once the defense begins presenting its case, several witnesses could be called back to the stand. That includes Aguirre, who has already testified for almost five hours.