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Analysis: Public safety chief seeks exit from civil service

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, particularly, 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.

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» 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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