By Terri Ferguson Smith
The number of police officers who have resigned in the months following Mayor Percy Bland's appointment of James Lee as chief of police is high, according to Bland, but he believes many of those resignations having nothing to do with Lee's management style.
Bland recently sat down to talk about the number of officers who have left the department; some of whom have said Lee was too harsh.
Citing a report of officers who have left the department since the beginning of July when he was sworn into office and when he hired Lee as chief, Bland said the turnover is not the result of just one issue.
"Of the 27 officers listed since I took office," Bland said, "five officers did not get out of the academy. Six have retired after many years of service, seven have left to pursue higher-paying jobs, five have resigned among internal investigations and for personal reasons; and three were terminated."
Bland also looked at the turnover rate in the four years prior to his administration. He acknowledged that the rate is higher in 2013, but the overall numbers show a pattern of turnover.
"One of the issues with our police department is it always has a high turnover. It's a stressful department. We don't pay our men and women enough money so there is a high turnover there," Bland said. "As I said when I was running and as I said when I got into office, a lot of people come here and work here for six months or a year and a half to get their training, then they go on to other departments or they go elsewhere to work or they have second jobs to make ends meet."
Moving officers from a 12 hour shift to an eight hour shift could explain some of the resignations, Bland said, because it affected their part-time jobs. Those changes and others, he said, have caused resistance from some officers.
"The people who leave because of those issues, we cannot control," Bland said. "We have made changes in the way we get them to do certain things that people have not been always happy with. Change is hard."
Lee is working to get more training for officers and he has put them in quadrants of the city which puts them in more face to face contact with residents to foster a stronger relationship with the community, Bland said.
"All those things are going to pay off. Right now we're going to put in a lot of overtime, from now until the end of the year because it's going to be a lot of high volume time for shoppers," Bland said. "It will phase off in January but right now, for the next two or three months we are going to see a strong police presence in our community and in our shopping areas. We want people to feel safe. We want people to shop here in Meridian. We want Meridian to be their destination."
Bland said he wants MPD to become the best police department in the state.
"I'm hard on Chief Lee and I'm sure sometimes he is hard on the officers because we're changing the expectation level of this city. We're not going back," Bland said.
In an earlier interview with The Meridian Star, Lee said some officers do not want to change; others have left for other reasons.
"We've had some retirements and some resignations but the resignations are not because 'I hate you Jim Lee.' The resignations are 'I've got a better job. I'm leaving for more money,'" Lee said.
Lee said he believes the unhappy officers represent a small group at the MPD.
With regard to Sheriff Billy Sollie's recent public remarks that he thinks Lee is a bully, Bland said those remarks will not affect the city's working relationship with the county.
"We respect Sheriff Sollie and if anything happens in this city, Chief Lee is going to be right there shoulder to shoulder with the sheriff and his men," Bland said.
Bland said he has already seen an improvement in the department and he expects that to continue.
"You have a new administration that is trying to change the image of this city and this police department. I think six months from now, a year from now, people will see what we are trying to do and how well some of these changes are improving the safety of our city and the image within our police department," Bland said.
Police officers who have left the MPD
*Of those officers who have left in 2013, 15 left before the Bland administration began on July 1; 27 left afterwards.