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Deputies hear changes in policy

By Jeremy Weldon

Two weeks into his term as Panola County Sheriff, deputies hired by Shane Phelps are adjusting to new department policies, changes that are focused on higher visibility of officers and personal accountability.

Phelps did not openly criticize former Sheriff Dennis Darby at a department-wide mandatory meeting held Jan. 7 at the Sardis Courthouse. He did, however, tell his staff that months of campaigning last year convinced him the Sheriff’s Office has failed in the public relations aspect of law enforcement.

“How you talk to people and how we as officers present ourselves to the public reflects on Panola County and the people of Panola County,” Phelps said. “I’m telling you tonight that you are going to do things differently and you are going to do them now. Basically, you are going to do your job.”

For more than three hours officers from the Batesville Police Department patrolled the county and answered calls while deputies, investigators, and other officers were measured for new uniforms and put in orders for police gear.

Just three officers were absent – one was hospitalized and two others were at the training academy – as Phelps outlined the new policies, covering topics from sunglasses to boots.

The most noticeable changes are complete uniform, including ties, for all department personnel at all times. Exempt, of course, are officers in the task force or investigators who need to wear different clothes at times.

Phelps retired from the Mississippi Highway Patrol to run for the Sheriff’s position, and gave indications he will require local deputies to abide by some of the stricter dress standards associated with that agency.

Among the items covered by Phelps and Major Bill McGee in the meeting were:

  • ● Sunglasses worn by officers when talking with the general public. Phelps said sunglasses may not to worn, or kept on your person, at any time when interacting with people. “I want the people to be able to see your face, and know your name. When you walk into a store, look the clerk in the eye and introduce yourself. Ask them their name and let them know that the Sheriff’s Department is here to help them,” he said.
  • ● Police vests and body cameras are to be worn at all times. The sheriff said many complaints about officers, often unjustified, can be cleared up by replaying body camera tape. He said officers must record every interaction with the public during their shift work.
  • ● Tinted windows for patrol cars and trucks will not be allowed. “If I ride through your neighborhood and you can’t see my face, you as the average citizen don’t really know who was driving that car,” McGee said. “We are tearing the tint off these vehicles immediately. It’s not safe to have these windows this dark and it looks like the police are hiding. We want the public to see our faces all the time, and know who we are.”
  • ● Officers will be required to actively participate at Highway Patrol wreck scenes and fire department calls when not busy. “The days of pulling up to a fire and sitting around are over. Those guys are volunteers and while we are there we will be helping them,” Phelps said. “Wreck reports will be turned in at the end of every shift. We will not keep people waiting for reports because we didn’t do the work.”
  • ● Cooperation with other law enforcement agencies will be expected. Phelps said officers should assist state patrolmen by gathering information from wreck victims while waiting for officers to arrive. Highway patrolmen cover multiple counties and victims are often already transported to hospitals when they arrive at a highway wreck scene, requiring them to make additional trips to gather their information.
  • ● How deputies deal with intoxicated drivers will also be closely monitored, he said. “On DUIs, listen to me real good, you shall make an arrest when it comes to a DUI. I don’t care if it’s my brother, you take him to jail,” Phelps said. “And, my brother will sit in jail for eight hours. If you stop your buddy and he’s drunk, and you carry him home then you’re fired if I find out about it.”
  • Citing potential liability to the county, he said, “The days of the good old boys system is over. And if I get a call that any of you have been stopped for DUI my answer is going to be to lock him up. Nobody is above their badge, and an officer can kill somebody drunk driving like anybody else can.”
  • ● Overtime for all employees will be strictly avoided if possible, McGee said. “This department spent over $500,000 (including taxes and benefits) last year and it’s going to stop. All overtime will have to be approved and requested in advance,” he said. Deputies are free to wear their uniforms and stand on sidelines during local football games, but will not be allowed to bill for overtime, he said. “If a school requests you be there, then that’s different, but if that’s the case you will have a post and will be assigned to it. No more standing around and letting the taxpayers pay the bill.”
  • ● McGee said he and Chief Deputy Reginald Lantern (when he starts in March) will closely monitor the condition of patrol vehicles, and will demand they be kept clean and maintained. “Police speed, I know that, but it’s a bad habit and we need to break it. It’s dangerous and there is no need for it,” he said, adding that officers will also not be allowed to upgrade patrol vehicles with any devices to create more horsepower and speed.
  • ● The department will have a greater focus on training, and officers at all levels can expect to spend more hours in classrooms and participating in hands-on training. “If you don’t like training, you are in the wrong department,” Phelps said. “I hope and pray to God we don’t ever have to use it in Panola County, but we are going to do a lot of active shooter training starting soon.”
  • Also on the training schedule, will be courses that focus on stop and approach techniques – a very dangerous part of law enforcement work – and strategies for dealing with mentally ill patients. “We get lots of calls for mentally illness in Panola County and there’s a way to talk to them that works out better for everyone. I’ve got somebody lined up to help us in that area, too,” Phelps said.
  • ● The formation of a SWAT team is iminent and Phelps said he plans on having officers try out for positions to create a group specifically trained for response to crisis situations with active shooters.
  • ● Patrol officers will be required to make a certain number of stops at businesses around the county to make contact with merchants and the general public. Deputies were also encouraged to visit schools and have School Resource Officers (currently at each school in the county except Greenhill Elementary in Sardis) introduce them to teachers and students. “Go eat lunch at these schools, the kids love it and it’s a way to get to know the people,” McGee said.
  • ● Officers will respond to every call, and no longer be allowed to get a contact number from the dispatcher and call to ask about a reported problem. “That’s not going to happen anymore. We will go to every call, and talk to every person that has a problem. It’s our job,” McGee said. “You may have worked 40 burglaries that week and to you it’s just another call, but to the person who came home and their door is kicked in, or their car is gone, or a child is hurt, it’s the worst day of their life. We have to remember that each time we talk to a victim, and show them the respect that we would want,” he said.
  • Phelps told the deputies and other officers they were chosen for employment in the department because leaders believed they were the right people for Panola County. “Get off the highways and ride the roads. One thing I learned going from one end of this county to the other was that people want to see the Sheriff’s Department riding by, and they want to know who we are.”