COLUMBIA, Miss. (WDAM) - “I know the optics are horrible and I struggle with that every day,” said Columbia Police Chief Michael Kelly.
On the job since March 2018, Kelly said fighting crime isn’t easy, nor is trying to maintain the public image he wants for his department, which is facing some challenges.
“The story that often times gets out is we’re crooks and we’re corrupt and we beat people and that’s not who we are,” said Kelly.
For the most part, those challenges began in January when an internal letter became public, questioning protocol, procedure and department culture. The letter, sent to the chief from one of his officers, alleges abuse of a man at the hands of another officer. The letter alleges that man was zip tied to a pole and even threatened with a gun.
“There was a very thorough investigation done internally by several people within the department," Kelly said. “It wasn’t just myself, and that investigation was also turned over the to the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation.”
Kelly said because of what allegedly happened, he made some changes to policy.
“Now you don’t go into an interview room in this department without everything being videotaped and audio," Kelly said. “It’s department policy that if you interview anyone, if you have a conversation with anyone inside this department, that it’s to be done under camera. That protects the officer so we put that in place.”
When asked if that wasn’t a policy already, Kelly said there were cameras but they didn’t work.
That case is now one of two federal lawsuits against the city claiming excessive force and brutality. The other was filed by a woman who claims an officer hit her multiple times and threw her to the ground, causing injuries that required a trip to the emergency room.
“It’s frustrating when you know the truth, you know what happened, but you can’t tell the people, just because we can’t,” said Kelly.
Kelly said he can’t say more because of legal reasons. Adding to that frustration, most recently, the city’s Board of Aldermen voted to hire an officer, who’s currently under investigation regarding his alleged involvement in a Forrest County wreck that killed two people back in January. It happened while he was a deputy with the Forrest County Sheriff’s Department and resigned amid the investigation. Kelly said he and city leaders were aware of the investigation when the board voted to hire him.
“I thought he would be a good asset to this community, and I thought he would be loyal to the people here,” said Kelly.
After public backlash, three days later, that officer was fired by the same board that hired him. Current CPD Lieutenant Davey Bass said these recent black clouds are not reflective of the department.
“To be questioned is fine," Bass said. “To be criticized is fine, we don’t oppose that, but it just frustrates me, it hurts my heart to know that people look at us and think that we want to do anything other than protect them and love them.”
Kelly said his department is dealing with the issues and using them as examples of how to better operate.
“We’re being as proactive as we can to solve some of the problems or to keep some of these issues from reoccurring in the future,” said Kelly.