September 25, 2011 12:55:00 AM
Columbus Middle School is located within the Columbus Municipal School District but outside Columbus city limits, and the Columbus Police Department does not have jurisdiction at the school.
Emergency response personnel quelled the Sept. 16 bomb and sniper threat at the school without any injuries. However, due to a signed agreement that the Mississippi Attorney General did not approve, there were questions regarding who was supposed to be the lead agency during the event.
Agreement, attorney general's response
On March 7, the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors, Lowndes County Sheriff Butch Howard, Columbus Mayor Robert Smith and then-Columbus Police Chief Joseph St. John, agreed to make the CPD the lead agency for a tactical situation at the school.
The agreement states, "The enforcement of crime at the district's new middle school shall be under the direct operational control of the Chief of Columbus Police Department Joseph St. John, with the express understanding City Police Department shall use all efforts to be the 'first responder' with primary responsibility for law enforcement at the district's new middle school."
However, the Mississippi Attorney General's office sent a letter to City Attorney Jeff Turnage on April 4 denying approval of the agreement.
The attorney general's opinion, signed by Special Assistant Attorney General James Dale, states, "The agreement attempts to confer jurisdiction of the Columbus Police Department together with the Lowndes County Sheriff's department on Columbus School District property located outside the municipal corporate limits. The municipal police department has no jurisdiction outside the corporate limits and the referenced (interlocal agreement) cannot confer such jurisdiction. The sheriff's department has jurisdiction since the property is located in Lowndes County."
"We had an agreement, but it has to be approved by the attorney general of the state of Mississippi," Turnage said. "He did not approve it."
Chief Deputy never informed
Turnage said the attorney general's opinion was sent to the city school board attorney and the city's police chief, but Lowndes County Chief Deputy Greg Wright was not notified of the ruling until the day of the threat.
"I was being made aware that we were responsible for making sure that situation was taken care of," Wright said.
The agreement states, "The County Sheriff's Department shall, consistent with its present duty, be available to assist the City Police Department when requested or to otherwise respond in case of the failure to timely respond by the City Police Department. In the event that both the County Sheriff's Department and the City Police Department are necessary to enforce the laws at the district's new middle school, it is understood that enforcement at the district's new middle school shall be under the direct command and control of the City Police Department with backup by the Sheriff of Lowndes County as requested by the City Police Department."
The school district provides school resource officers at the campus, Wright said, and they respond to the day-to-day incidents at the school. But in a situation, like a bomb and sniper threat, that requires multiple personnel and agencies, "my people and myself were under the impression that (the CPD) was in charge," Wright said.
"My stance is you can't wait until a situation happened before figuring out who's in charge. In the middle of something is not the time to start saying it is not our jurisdiction."
Wright said the CPD did respond to the scene first and "called in the appropriate agencies."
CPD officers, LCSO deputies, Mississippi Highway Patrol units, CMSD officers, and Columbus Air Force Base canines all responded to the event.
Since the event, Wright received clarification that the LCSO would be the first responding agency and work with the school resource officer on site the next time a similar emergency event occurs at the CMS campus.
"We're fine now," Wright said, noting he has talked with Jimmy Bonner, CMSD chief resource officer, since the threat.
"We're going to have a meeting, and we're going to discuss how to handle the students if another incident happens."
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