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Birney Imes: The lessons of St. Joe


Birney Imes



If Columbus Police Chief Joe St. John was struggling with any self-esteem issues, they were vanquished Tuesday evening at the city''s Municipal Complex. 


I don''t think I''ve ever seen anything quite like it. 


During a 45-minute-long citizen input portion of a regularly scheduled city council meeting, more than two dozen people rose to eulogize the embattled chief and urge the council to abandon plans revealed earlier that day to fire him. 


Supporters, some wearing "Citizens for Chief St. John" T-shirts, stood in the aisles and an overflow crowd congregated in the hallway and lobby outside. Excepting a couple of public school meetings in the late 1980s, I can''t remember an audience more vocal or more passionate about a cause. 


Men, women, young, old, black and white stood in front of the mayor, council and a packed house to recount their firsthand examples of the chief''s dedication, support and individual attention. You began to wonder if the chief ran a one-man police department or if he ever slept. 


The devotion expressed for the larger-than-life chief is something rarely seen in a public''s relationship with its police department or, for that matter, any aspect of officialdom. 


"I am a single woman -- and I''m proud of it -- and Joe St. John has made me feel more secure than I ever have since I''ve been here. Brenda Waldrop told the mayor and council. "You cannot take this man from this town." 


"All of you have got to come up for election," another speaker threatened, drawing an enthusiastic affirmation from the crowd. 


The event quickly assumed the tone of a pep rally. 


"He''s the first person who makes me feel the way I do about this city," another Friend of Joe said. "He makes a lot of people, like I do, feel good about this city." 


Joe does make you feel good about your hometown. And he makes you feel good about your police force, something that is rare. As more than one said, he has been a bridge builder. Someone called him a member of the Columbus family. 


Randy Hood said he phoned St. John from Texas at 4 a.m. after his house was broken into. Within a week''s time the burglars were apprehended and eventually incarcerated. 


"Don''t make it a black thing or white thing; make it a right thing," Hood said. 


"Mr. Mayor, you used to own a liquor store, right?" he added to the delight of the crowd. 


"Bet I get a ticket before I leave here," Hood mumbled as he returned to his seat. 


Jo Shumake made a thoughtful and convincing closing argument for St. John. 


"Before you dismiss this as a popularity contest please consider this," Shumake said. "For the police department to really, really work -- and we need a good, strong police department -- it has to have the support of the community. I think what you have in an obviously popular police chief is something that is a tipping point for us where we can bring this community together ... because the the popularity of the police chief filters down into the popularity and importance of the police force and we need that very much in Columbus." 


The council deliberated for two hours and did what it thought it had to do. It fired St. John. The council could hardly ignore the precedent it set when it fired firefighter Mitchell Banks -- an incident that has been referenced countless times during this episode -- for not being able to attend a seminar in Jackson because of the previous night''s drinking. 


Like Banks, St. John was unable to appear for an equally important meeting for the same reasons. Unlike Banks, St. John has a devoted and outspoken following. 


The council passed over Joe Johnson, naming Selvain McQueen as interim and announced plans to hire a search firm, thus putting to rest widespread fears Johnson might become permanent chief. 


As much as I like Joe and as much goodwill as he''s engendered for the city, I believe the council did the right thing. Has the mayor and council always been consistent in the past? No. But that''s no reason they shouldn''t be now. 


Giving the chief a pass would have set an indefensible precedent and would have rendered him ineffective within the department. 


In the time he''s been here, Joe St. John has worked himself into the heart of this community. He''s become a local icon, another Mother Goose, if you will. He has demonstrated by his actions, by his enthusiasm for people and their causes, how to love your hometown. If we can embrace those lessons, all will have not been lost. 


Still, it is time to face reality and turn the page, to be about the sad and tedious business of finding another chief.  


We''re going to miss you, Joe. 


Birney Imes is the publisher of The Commercial Dispatch. E-mail him at [email protected]


Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.


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Reader Comments

Article Comment heatherk commented at 7/20/2011 12:07:00 PM:

Good column, Birney. My thoughts are that if he had an agreement not to drink and he was tested and failed that test,, it seemed to have kept him from fulfilling his duties. Seems like he had his second chance and blew it.


Article Comment bay3 commented at 7/20/2011 12:35:00 PM:

I'm sorry if this question is considered ignorant...but what is the problem with Joe Johnson? I have read several comments about him and for some reason people don't want him to be the Chief...but I'm confused. Isn't he the Asst Chief? Isn't he the person that is supposed to take over when the Chief is not there for the job? I don't know the history so maybe there is a story I missed out on with Joe Johnson. But it seems so odd to me. If Joe Johnson is not capable of doing the job, then why is he Asst Chief?? It doesn't make sense to me. I want to assume that there is another problem with him other than his skin color, so that's why I'm asking. Not everyone in Columbus has lived here for 20 years straight and knows all the history. Why not Joe Johnson?? And whatever the reason, why does he have the job he has now if he's not Chief material?


Article Comment ckirby commented at 7/20/2011 12:50:00 PM:

bay you need to ask that justin Smith boy and his family that question.


Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/20/2011 1:41:00 PM:

And then you need to go to and read the report done on the CPD.

And then ask yourself if yourself if you really want Fro Joe, who had to call the then "on leave" Chief and ask him "whadda I do, whadda I do?" when there were two murders in the city.

And if you had been standing with me at the St. Mary's Catholic School the day the CPD surrounded an abandoned house, tear gassed it, and then heard the suspect was actually all the way across town, you would have witnessed Fro Joe running laps around a Police car trying to find a door he could open to catch a ride.

I almost wet my pants right there in the front yard of the Catholic School.


Article Comment sheatherly commented at 7/20/2011 2:00:00 PM:

Yes, well written, Birney. So, we are back to the ever-revolving door of officials from out-of-town stepping in and out of limelight offices in our city and school system, while a few behind-the-scenes 'iffy people' keep doing what they do. ..and some of them getting promotions.


Article Comment kat commented at 7/20/2011 2:13:00 PM:

well written Birney. and yes it is time to move on. "Giving the chief a pass would have set an indefensible precedent and would have rendered him ineffective within the department." This is so true! Now is the time to make the rules apply to EVERYONE, not just a few. Sorry it had to be with this popular chief- but it has to start somewhere!

Read more:


Article Comment deputydawg commented at 7/20/2011 3:12:00 PM:

I don't think "giving the Chief a pass" was ever an option. He could have retained his job with stipulations, contingencies, etc. Besides, according to the C. Dispatch poll (which I realize is unscientific, but nevertheless) the citizens want to keep him since he is obciously the best Chief we've ever had. But, the damage has been done and the will of the people has been trampled on by the council. After seeing the ex-Chief on the noon show today, he is not nearly done as a servant to this community. Personally, I hope he runs for city council and serves in that capacity until the next sheriff's race in which I'm sure he would win in a landslide.


Article Comment readaboutit commented at 7/20/2011 3:52:00 PM:

Nice comment,deputydawg! Too bad the board had tunnel vision and never even entertained alternatives. Did they even talk to any citizens???Doesn't seem like it. I also like the sound of Mayor St. John....


Article Comment sutter commented at 7/20/2011 5:13:00 PM:

Excellent coverage by the Commercial Dispatch...Birney and his staff and Kelly's great photo's...what done is done...i too have really never seen anything quite like parked in front of atmos energy that kind of thing....a great (football) coach once said you should treat all the players fairly but you can't treat them all the same! i disagree with Birney...i think the council made a mistake...lets hope they learn from this and in the search not compound a felony and make a hiring blunder!


Article Comment bay3 commented at 7/20/2011 7:37:00 PM:

ckirby/roscoe...i appreciate your responses and I'll have to look up what you're talking about but then they lead to my other questions as to why he is even the Asst Chief?? If he's not capable, shouldn't someone else hold that position?? Why not have someone else there getting that experience and have the capability to jump in when needed?? Doesn't make sense to me. Why spend the money on a search team when we have people working right here in the cpd?? If the people there aren't worth a dam, then we need to get rid of them and replace them with people who are. Cops, teachers, and any other city employee. Either make them do the job or if they won't (or can't) - replace them with people who will / can. At this point, we should have a number of people in the cpd that has worked there for years and has the experience and community knowledge to take over and lead as Chief. The fact that we need to spend money on finding and hiring someone from somewhere else is mind boggling. Multiple fails!


Article Comment applicant commented at 7/20/2011 8:40:00 PM:

Serving in the one most important positions in local government requires discipline and restraint; not just the good ole boy politics and an affable personality some of you are confusing for leadership. A police chief needs self discipline, and the total trust and respect of the men and women he or she leads. The credibility of a police department is always subject to impeachment, if the department's integrity, particularly its leadership is open to discussion. Given the situation, city leaders were presented with they chose leadership over a popularity contest; or some flawed poll, completed by a smidgen of the population. If this debate was to go national, Columbus, Mississippi would be a national laughing stock for even questioning this right decision. I urge you folks to evolve; see the big picture. Successful companies and / or organizations learn from their mistakes and they move on. And, a progressive community, if this community wants to be one, needs to accept the consequences when a local servant has shot himself in the foot, inflicting his own terminal injury to his own career. Have your brief mourning period; get over the mourning, and move on. This state, this region, and this country have never had a bigger pool of highly educated, experienced and high quality police chief applicants to choose from in its history. The police department and this city will be fine; in fact much better; just you wait and see.


Article Comment raider commented at 7/20/2011 9:44:00 PM:

@bay3 - did you notice that your original question was not answered.


Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/21/2011 6:40:00 AM:

Read the report! Don't sit on your lazy backside trying to make innuendos where one doesn't exist. He got that far due to time in, and the report states there is no one at this time capable of assuming leadership (but yet this Administration has let him anyway after JDS), and now, another person who the report states isn't the one is now the one thanks to The Downtown Thugs.

According to one former Chief: the man is the most incompetent officer I've ever seen. (paraphrase)


Article Comment neverwrong commented at 7/21/2011 1:24:00 PM:

What I find amusing is that J.D. Sanders and Joe St. John were both found after a nationwide search for a police chief and both have been practically run out of town. Surely prospective applicants will know before they are hired that the end of their terms are numbered like the two prior chiefs! It's a joke! The City needs to cut to the chase and give the city residents and City Council what it is they really want.


Article Comment pat henry commented at 7/21/2011 1:41:00 PM:

So, Birney, who are the water boys going to prop up now? Has Hippie Adele turned in her resignation in protest? Is there a token a Garthia column on the racial injustice of Afro Man being passed over in the works? Can you and the other parasite water boys find some competent persons to defeat the joke of a mayor and city council in the next election?


Article Comment janahall70 commented at 7/21/2011 4:19:00 PM:

Excellent editorial. Hate that he's gone, but that's the way it has to be. I'm honestly surprised our council showed the consistency they did, whether it was what we wanted or not.


Article Comment roscoe p. coltrain commented at 7/21/2011 5:11:00 PM:

Jana: it was what THEY wanted, and if you paid attention to Kabir's rants on the radio, you'd know why.


Article Comment zenreaper commented at 7/21/2011 7:07:00 PM:

@deputydawg: "He could have retained his job with stipulations, contingencies, etc."

They did that, he drank anyway.


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