Rupert Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 1, 2010

Rupert Howell

Officer contrite over mistake, event blown bigger by politics

Maybe you saw him in the honor guard standing watch over the coffins of the late Panola County Board of Supervisors’ President Robert Avant or Sheriff Hugh Wayne “Shot” Bright. Maybe you saw him in court or in a patrol car either in the county or in the City of Sardis.

But if you’ve seen him lately he doesn’t look the same.

Darius Smith messed up. He knows he messed up and so does everybody who either witnessed the event or has seen video tape from Zaxby’s security camera.

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Smith let emotions rule while placing an order at Zaxby’s Restaurant, handcuffed an employee, all caught on the restaurant’s security camera.

Darius wrote a letter to the editor that appears on the facing page.

He’s contrite and apologetic. He knows he messed up but hopes that the letter is the beginning of the healing process — not only for him but for those who were affected and for those of us for whom he served.

He would like to blame it on stress. He says he didn’t realize how stressed he was until he received a couple of days suspension while being investigated for the offense. He often worked seven days a week, a regular shift with Panola County and part-time with Sardis Police Department. He also says he’s paying child support for his four children, two of them teenagers, and hasn’t been spending enough time with them either. He admits that’s where his focus needed to be rather than working so many hours.

Darius was asked to resign from the Panola County Sheriff’s Department as deputy because of actions unbecoming an officer.

It was one of those times he wishes he could have a do-over, mulligan or erase entirely. But he can’t. It’s recorded in the video.

According to his story, he felt disrespected by the employee, asked for a manager and when he didn’t get the results he wanted, he took matters into his own hands and handcuffed the employee.

He apologized to the employee on Monday following the Friday night incident. He didn’t know her but he knew her family. He said that she said she forgave him.

An argument over a discount was not the cause of the incident, he said. It was mentioned, according to Smith, who says he would not “go off” over a discount and only takes one when he is in uniform, turning down the traditional discount for law enforcement when not working.

By then local officials had seen the tape. Sheriff Otis Griffin called the request for resignation a “no-brainer” when interviewed about the incident after he saw the tape. The chief deputy had conducted an internal investigation. He had seen the video and interviewed witnesses and presented it to the sheriff.

But Griffin also said in the same interview that Smith was one of the best deputies working for Panola County. Another employee said until the recent incident, Smith’s record was “squeaky-clean” and he was a good deputy.

Many, including Smith, feel that the severe punishment was brought about by political pressure coming during qualifying time for candidates who want to run for sheriff.

I don’t think so. I know so. Some of it anyway.

But regardless of what I think I know, a very capable young man’s life has been derailed. Keep in mind that it was his own poor judgment that caused the derailment.

Anyway, a very apologetic former deputy who loved his job, Panola County and serving the people, is unemployed and wondering what life brings next.

What a waste.

If he was a good law enforcement officer prior to his fiasco, he will probably be a better one having survived this unfortunate incident.