Meridian Star

October 13, 2013

LEMA director answers questions about guns, tent purchases

By Terri Ferguson Smith /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Questions are persisting about employees of Lauderdale County who carry weapons, and the recent purchase of some guns.

    Wayman Newell, District Two Supervisor, has opposed allowing any employee, except for law officers, to carry guns in their vehicles. He brought the subject up again at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting, questioning the purchase of 10 paint pellet guns for training purposes and four .45 caliber Glock pistols by David Sharp, director of Lauderdale County Emergency Management Agency.

    This summer, Sharp asked the board for permission for he and two other LEMA employees to carry guns in their vehicles in case they are on a search and rescue operation and encounter snakes.     The board approved the request in a 4-1 vote, with Newell casting the lone opposing vote.

    In examining the monthly claims docket last week, Newell saw that LEMA had bought the 10 paint guns, and four handguns. In a work session on Oct. 3, Sharp explained that the training guns, which fire paint pellets, were purchased for the Lauderdale County Sheriff's Department. Three of the .45 caliber Glocks were to be used by Sharp and two LEMA employees.

    Newell said he did not remember the board ever approving the purchase of guns for LEMA; Sharp later said that he followed state guidelines in the purchases.

    At the work session, Board Attorney Rick Barry advised the board that if county employees were going to carry weapons in their county vehicles, it would be better from a liability standpoint if the weapons were owned by the county.

    On Monday, at the supervisors meeting, Newell said he wanted to know who had the fourth gun and after that meeting, County Administrator Joe McCraney said District Four Supervisor Joe Norwood, a LEMA volunteer, had the fourth gun.

    Since then some have asked if the county should have bought a gun for Norwood to carry in his vehicle.

    Asked if he thought Norwood should carry a gun, Newell said, "He's not a county employee; he's an elected official. I don't have a comment on that. The way it's been told to me, the handbook does not apply to elected officials."

    However, the prohibition against county employees carrying weapons is a long-standing rule, Newell said.

    "It's been that way a long time; since I've been there," Newell said. "If you're a county worker, you're not supposed to have a hand gun."

    Norwood said as a LEMA volunteer, he should be allowed to carry a gun. As for the rules about county employees not carrying weapons, Norwood said supervisors are not under the same rules that employees are bound by.

    Norwood said he doesn't see any difference in the county purchasing a gun for him to carry and supervisors Josh Todd and Kyle Rutledge, who are volunteer firefighters, using county-purchased firefighting equipment and turnout gear.

    Others have asked why LEMA needs to carry weapons and if special boots designed to protect people walking in the woods from snake bites would be a better idea.

    "Yes, I have snake boots," Sharp said. "The snakes aren't the only issue. "

    Sharp said LEMA also sometimes assists law officers, here and in other counties, in searches for criminal suspects.

    "We do out on with canines sometimes on manhunts," Sharp said. "You bust through a thicket with a dog and you've got some fool standing there with a machete, you need to be able to defend yourself."

    The ammunition loaded into a gun can vary, depending upon the nature of the hunt, he said. In a manhunt for a dangerous criminal, bullets for self defense can be loaded, Sharp said. During a search and rescue operation, where searchers are worried about snakes, a cartridge that shoots pellets like a shotgun can be loaded, he said.

    Criminals and snakes aren't the only dangers in the woods, he said.

    "We have alligators around here and a wild hog can tear you to pieces," Sharp said.

    During the same work session in which Newell questioned the purchase of guns, he also questioned the purchase by LEMA of a 24 x 16 self-inflatable tent for $5,000. Among its uses, Sharp said at the time, could be a crime scene where the sheriff's department needed to work at for an extended time.

    That opportunity presented itself on Thursday when the Lauderdale Sheriff's Department and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigations investigated two shallow graves containing bodies. Sharp said he took dogs to the scene and the tent, at the request of Sheriff Billy Sollie.

    "It was going to be an extended operation," Sharp said. "They were out in direct sunlight and they were planning on working into the night."

    Newell said Friday that his only concern about the tent was whether it was a necessary expense.

    Sharp has said the money for the guns and tent purchases came from a grant his office applied for and won; the other portion of the money came from oil spill cleanup jobs the county has done and been reimbursed for.