HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - If state flag supporters and protestors continue to take to the Southern Miss campus on Sundays, officers will be ready to make sure the event stays peaceful.
"We're hoping as we move forward in the management in these ongoing interactions of these group that what we had in place is not ever needed again and we can minimally management it to some extent," said USM Police Chief Bob Hopkins.
For 95 weeks, supporters of the Mississippi state flag have stood on Hardy Street, many waving those flags. That has been the scene on Sundays since the flag was removed from campus in 2015.
Hopkins said a number of incidents in recent weeks, like pepper spraying, some pushing and shoving and large numbers of counter protestors expressing their actions on social media caused him to put a plan in place last week.
"We saw an uptick in particular groups that could have been a concern as it related to that and it steadily grew to the week prior to the event," said Hopkins. "That led us to have some concerns to what we may be dealing with."
The concerns lead to extra officers and patrols for the gathering on Sunday, August 19. Hopkins said 30 officers from multiple agencies were assigned to patrol the event and 20 additional officers were off-site, ready if necessary. That is in addition to the number of officers and deputies already scheduled to work for their agency off-campus.
"We can't tell 'em no, we can't have an expectation on a person could cause a problem and put restrictions on them," said Hopkins. "The only reason why we were allowed to do with this group was we had documentation of things that were happening when they got together."
The two groups were separated on campus, with barricades and traffic signals adjusted along Hardy Street directly in front of the University of Mississippi. Barricades marked the areas where the flag supporters and protesters could stand, speak their mind and hold signs of their choosing. A "neutral" zone, marked off with crime scene tape, separated the groups with officers in between.
"You know, you try to prepare the best that you can for what is being told will be there, try to have a better preparation," Hopkins said. "But in case 40,000 people do show up, you have another 100 people you can call in an hour."
To put those numbers of patrols in perspective, Hopkins said on a normal Sunday, there are three campus police officers scheduled per shift. Hattiesburg Police said about 30 to 40 officers are scheduled on any given Sunday.
"We had a large contingent that we called in and we manage their payment in accordance to our budget and the other agencies did that also," Hopkins said. "I think that's the expectation of the relationship we have. Will that ever change? I couldn't tell you."
Hopkins said each department was responsible for paying their officers who worked the protest, on top of the individuals already schedule to patrol the cities or counties that day.
In all, officers from these agencies were working or on stand-by for the protest: University Police Department, Hattiesburg Police Department, Miss. Highway Patrol, Petal Police Department, Forrest and Lamar County Sheriff's Offices, Forrest General Police Department, Miss. Dept. of Game and Fish, Federal and other State agencies, Forrest Emergency Operations Center, and Triple A Ambulance, along with Forrest/Perry County District Attorney's Office.