A new police chief will be at the helm of the Meridian Police Department following a 4-1 vote Tuesday by the Meridian City Council confirming Benny Dubose as the city's top cop.
"He's an experienced and widely respected chief of police," Mayor Percy Bland said. "He knows and understands our community as well as anyone. He is committed to building trust and public safety throughout our community."
A 30-year veteran of the MPD, Dubose served as chief of police from 2002 to 2009, but was let go by former Meridian Mayor Cheri Barry. Bland presented Dubose for confirmation to the city council, which questioned him for about 20 minutes before voting.
Ward 2 Councilman Dustin Markham asked Dubose to talk about how he would open up the lines of communications between citizens and police officers.
"Based on my observations, it appears that the relationship between the city residents and the Meridian Police Department has somewhat — there's a gap there. There's not trust there. There's not the relationship that needs to be there to effectively fight crime in the city," Dubose said. "Officers need to get out of their cars to communicate with residents."
Dubose said he agrees with the mayor and former chief, James Lee in the "See Something, Say Something" program which encourages residents to report crimes.
"When citizens see something, the police department needs to do something in order to regain trust," Dubose said.
In addition, an officer needs to attend each Neighborhood Watch program and it should be an officer who patrols that area, he said.
"We can't expect the citizens to reach out to us if we don't reach out to them," Dubose said.
Ward 1 Councilman George Thomas, who cast the only dissenting vote on Dubose's appointment, asked Dubose how he would handle supervising a relative who works for MPD.
Thomas was referring to Dubose's wife Barbara, a MPD civilian employee who works in Property and Evidence of the Investigative Division.
Thomas also asked Dubose if he was planning to continue to live in his current home in Clarke County, to which Dubose said he does plan to continue living there.
Ward 5 Councilman Randy Hammon, who has been vocal throughout his first year about the need for more codes and ordinances and enforcement of those rules, asked Dubose to talk about his commitment to code enforcement.
"I'm talking about litter, I'm talking about speeding, I'm talking about disorderly gatherings, I'm talking about curfews, truancy, I'm talking about noise," Hammon said.
Dubose said just having signs posted about the rules won't make the difference.
"It's going to take some effort on the part of the officers, the police supervisors and the chief of police to ensure this is done. It has to be closely monitored," Dubose said. "We are charged with enforcing the ordinances, whether we agree with them or not. That's our job and that's what we will do."
Hammon said enforcement should be done fairly, with no favoritism. Dubose said often citizens who are cited will use a person's name whom they expect to have influence over the officer.
"They'll say, 'I know so and so.' That doesn't matter — what matters is what you did," Dubose said.
Ward 4 Councilwoman Kim Houston asked Dubose about saving money on the housing of inmates by using holding cells that are in the Meridian Police Department. Dubose said he had not had a chance to see the cells in the new police department building, but he knows there are specific rules that regulate the use of jail cells.
"Until I see the cells and whether we meet those guidelines, then I can't tell you one way or another," Dubose said.
Houston also asked about improving morale at the police department, which reportedly grew very low during Lee's administration.
"They (officers) have to feel like they are part of the solution, not just tools that are being pushed around the city to fix certain problems," Dubose said. "If you explain to the officers what your goals are, what part they are in accomplishing those goals, that in itself will increase morale."
Ward 3 Councilwoman Barbara Henson asked Dubose to name his top concern going into the job. Dubose said he is concerned about the increase in violence among young people and he plans to reinstate the Meridian Police Department Advisory Board, which would include, among others, representatives from each city ward.
He said communication between police and school officials is vital because sometimes events occur over the weekend and school personnel do not know about it, but the situation may "blow up" at school on the following Monday. Dubose said school officials need a heads up to the potential for trouble.
Following the meeting, Thomas explained his vote against the appointment of Dubose.
"I have a real problem with a police chief not living in our county," Thomas said. "I have a problem with a family member being there, plus I want a new direction. It appears to me that we are going backwards. Mr. Dubose did an OK job when he was here before. The mayor has talked about a new direction. I'd like that new direction to start early."
However, now that Dubose has been confirmed, Thomas pledged his support.
"We are going to support the chief and what he wants to do," Thomas said. "Once the vote is taken, that's over."
While addressing the press following the meeting, Mayor Percy Bland said it was a great day for Meridian and he thanked Assistant Chief Buck Roberts for serving as interim chief. Roberts took over as interim after Bland fired Chief James Lee on May 6.
In other business, the council made several other appointments as recommended by Bland. All votes were 5-0 in favor of the appointments. They are:
Dawn Taylor Wright — Civil Service Commission.
Kristen Marshall — Historic Preservation Commission.
Kathy Price — Meridian Housing Authority.
Craig Wilkes — Meridian Tree Commission.
The council also unanimously approved employing Glover, Young, Hammack, Walton and Simmons, PLLC to serve as city attorney starting on July 1. Attorney Bill Hammack will serve as lead attorney.
The council also approved a contract with Leading Edges, a public relations and advertising firm in Meridian.