Meridian Star

Local News

July 14, 2013

Vision

New chief outlines initiatives

MERIDIAN —     Etched in the mind of James Lee is a vision of a bygone era of law enforcement.

    The image is that from the famous Norman Rockwell painting showing a small boy holding the hand of a police officer. The innocence of the child, coupled with the genuine concern of the officer for the little boy is quite evident. It is one of the reasons why he became an officer after retiring from the United State Air Force in 1993.

    "Police officers should be an important part of the community," Lee said. "Not only as peace officers but as friends, neighbors, family members. A gap has formed in Meridian separating us, the police department, from the residents, the neighborhoods and the community as a whole. We are going to close that gap and become a police force that is user friendly for the citizens."

    Born in the small town of Vaughn, 13 miles north of Canton, Lee joined the USAF to serve his country. Now at age 59, a single father of a 23-year-old daughter who herself is married to a police officer, Lee said he is blessed and honored to lead the men and women of the Meridian Police Department into what he and newly elected Mayor Percy Bland hope is a new era in law enforcement for Meridian.

    "Mayor Bland has laid down the gauntlet in regards to combating the crime in Meridian," Lee said. "He asked me to take this position to help us get back in the fight against crime. He is driving the boat and we are along to support him any way we can."

    Lee has served through the ranks of a police officer, been a police chief, rose to major with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, a post not held by a minority before, and been the operations director for the Mississippi Department of Homeland Security. But it was with the USAF he learned what he considers the most valuable managerial lesson. A lesson he said has served him well throughout his other career choices.

    "Take care of your people and they will take care of the mission," Lee said.

    Lee said in many ways he is an old-school police officer living in modern times. He points to the days when people knew the officers who served their communities.

    "Community policing is putting an officer right in the middle of a neighborhood to live and get to know the residents," Lee said. "I want them to go to the ball games, the cookouts, and to get to really know who is living in their area. That is how we gain the trust of the public. That is how we start taking crime down a notch. That is how we accomplish our goals of having safe places for our children to grow up."

    Lee said officers are going to get out of patrol cars and talk to people to find out what their concerns are; to find out why they are afraid and what can be done to help.

    Lee said when crime goes down, businesses move into the area, creating more jobs. Lee said he remembers a time when children didn't have to worry about getting hit by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting. He wants that time to return.

    Lee's plan begins with the men and women of the MPD. He said he wants to instill an Esprit de Corps. He has ordered detectives, for example, to be that elite group that all officers aspire to be. Lee has ceased the clothing allowance for the detectives and ordered them to cut their hair and to wear department issued uniforms.

    "I want the position to mean something," Lee said. "I want it to be about pride, professionalism. That will come through in their work."

    Lee said he has doubled the number of officers who make up the Direct Action Response Team (DART). This unit is specially picked and trained for high crime areas. They are not confined to any set area of patrol and can go anywhere in the city where the need arises.

    Also, as evidenced with the recent operation on Interstate 20/59 through Meridian in which officers seized almost $365,000 in cash — reputed drug money — stashed in a hidden compartment of a vehicle, Lee is injecting new life into the Interstate Criminal Enforcement units, or ICE teams. ICE teams are specially trained to investigate suspected drug trafficking activities that use the interstate corridors as arteries to move their illegal cargos and money.

    Lee is asking these two divisions to be more proactive in their duties to help stem the tide of crime more quickly and efficiently.

    Lee said he also sees the problems facing his department, such as patrol officers having to answer too many calls during a shift. He said he needs more officers to lighten the load and hopes the mayor and the members of the Meridian City Council will help him to do so.

    "I want more officers who are better paid to do the work," Lee said. "Right now they are being run into the ground. If we are to make Meridian safe again, we have to make the commitments now that will pay huge dividends later."

    Another initiative Lee believes would pay big dividends in the long run is the advent of more outreach programs for the city's youth. Lee wants police officers to be a part of the lives of the youngsters as coaches, big brothers and sisters, and mentors.

    "I want that young boy or girl to look up to police officers and want to be like them," Lee said. "Children should trust police officers, not be afraid of them."

    Lee, while operations director for the state department of homeland security, became familiar with Meridian during the occasions he came to the area for training sessions at the Meridian / Lauderdale County Public Safety Training Facility located on Sandflat Road. During those visits, Lee got to know the people of Meridian, the police officers, and he has kept the area in the back of his mind.

    As the new police chief, Lee said he wants Meridian residents to realize one very important point.

    "We are in this together," Lee said of fighting crime and improving the living conditions of the city. "If we get this done, with the help of the community, then we all win."

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