OPINION: You can't have too much transparency

Steve Rogers
Staff Writer

The Columbus City Council Tuesday night chastised Police Chief Fred Shelton privately for waiting a week to notify city leaders that one of the city's part-time officers had been stopped while off-duty in Starkville on suspicion of DUI, had an underage woman with him, claimed he was "interim assistant chief" and that Shelton sent an off-duty officer, Reginald Adams, to get the two.

But the Council and Mayor Robert Smith didn't discipline Shelton, not even a public admonishment.

"From what I understand he told everyone, he didn't deserve to be," one person told me.

That's left some people, including me, asking why not. That comes on top of some observers wondering why the officer, Louis Alexander, who is a big Shelton supporter, was suspended for what amounts to just 16 calendar days while social media violations have earned officers much longer punishments.

For instance, Jared Booth was suspended 30 days -- that amounts to 60 calendar days for full-time officers -- because he posted obscene material on his personal Facebook page. One was a penis made to look like a popsicle, another was an item about gay officers and a third was an unflattering video of an obese woman taking off a girdle.

Some city leaders say Booth's punishment was more severe because he sent the penis item to a female officer and tagged her so others could see it on Facebook. That created a hostile work environment or at least the perception of a hostile work environment.

The same for the unflattering video of the obese woman and the comment about gay police officers.

In short, hostile work environments translate into big payouts in federal court.

I guess being borderline intoxicated, with an underage woman, lying about your job and using your police status to get out of trouble doesn't create a hostile work environment. It's more along the lines of what President Donald Trump would call "locker room talk," the term he used when he made numerous disparaging comments about women.

I'm pretty sure women found it offensive. And in the case at hand, offensive, unprofessional behavior is just that --- offensive and unprofessional -- and not conducive to a professional, progressive work environment.

Even with a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Starkville Police left some questions unanswered about what happened the night Alexander and the woman, 20-year-old Corrye Jordan, were questioned. One that lingers is why, if the woman wasn't drinking or intoxicated, didn't police allow her to drive home instead of making Columbus police send someone to get them?

Starkville cites students all the time for underage consumption.

And I suspect it won't be long before someone stopped for suspicion of DUI asks a Starkville officer for the same kind of "professional courtesy" and a ride home.
But those are issues for another day.

The incident at hand happened March 8-9, but Shelton did not meet with the mayor, city attorney and some council members until March 15 to discuss the incident.
That's seven days.
"That's not very long really," one city official told me.
I can think of at lest three other cases where city leaders were notified within two days of incidents. And I suspect the mayor and city attorney routinely are notified within hours, if not minutes, when an officer commits an act that might even be remotely considered a disciplinary offense.

"It took some time to get the video," another city official told me.

So what?

The chief knew the department had a problem the minute he got the call from Starkville. He should have alerted key administrators within hours, if not sooner. And if the video were such an issue, the chief could have driven to Starkville at any point to see it.

In fact, I am told he did. Regardless, the issue is the lack of notification and how it appears the chief was trying to cover it up. That's particularly true since when he finally did tell his bosses, it was shortly after newspapers started inquiring with the Starkville and Columbus police about the incident.

That all may be a coincidence. But perception is reality, and the perception is when those calls were made, Shelton knew the cat was out of the bag.

"The guy was not convicted of any crime and was off duty," still another city official said of the way the situation was handled and the resulting discipline.


Apparently all the talk we hear about holding police officers and firefighters to a higher standard doesn't really apply or applies only when we want it to. I listened to the head of the North Mississippi Law Enforcement Training Academy give an ethics seminar to West Point police recently.

Officers were fired for examples less egregious than what Alexander did.

And more than anything, that seminar leader admonished officers and supervisors to hold themselves to a higher standard for the integrity of their profession and the communities they serve.

If I am wrong about Chief Shelton, then I apologize. But city leaders should explain it to the public. Transparency almost always wins and when a new chief trying to gain community support for a beleaguered department is the issue, you can't have too much of it.

Humbled by 3rd-grader

On a more joyful note, I was humbled this week by a third-grader. On the other hand, I know who I am going to call the next time I play in a scramble golf tournament.

I was watching the Oak Hill-Heritage Academy Classic at Old Waverly Thursday in miserable conditions. Coming up the 18th fairway was what could only be described as a child and a girl at that.
She was in a wet lie about 140 yards out with a cross wind of about 25 miles per hour. I figured she was two shots from making it to the green and asked myself why someone this young was out knocking balls around in the middle of the tournament.

Then she swang. Smooth as silk, a little like Annika Sorenstam, the successful LPGA golfer. The result,? About six feet below the hole, just where you wanted to be given the pin location.
She made the putt and trudged on carrying her bag.

I was talking to a coach/parent a few minutes later. Turns out she is Anna Christian Beeker, a third-grader at Tuscaloosa Academy, who takes some lessons at Old Waverly. I saw her later with her mother and older brother. Shy and reserved around some of the adults, she belied her talent and ability.

Playing from the women's tees, she shot 93 Monday at Mossy Oak and 96 in the muck and wind at Old Waverly Tuesday. She beat several guys.

She may lose her interest in golf. Or she may be the next big thing one day.

But for a few minutes Tuesday, watching her humbled me. And I appreciate that.