March 22, 2018 10:55:45 AM
Starkville Police Chief Frank Nichols once told a Dispatch reporter, "Nothing good ever comes from looking into the police."
This was in response to questions about an officer Nichols hired last year without disclosing to the mayor or board of aldermen that officer was, at the time, a defendant in a federal lawsuit.
Whether Nichols meant that comment as a veiled threat or as proselytizing a philosophy that the "thin blue line" washes away all sins of those wearing a badge, the words now stand as somewhat prophetic -- at least as it pertains to him and his department.
Because The Dispatch and other media "looked into the police," we discovered SPD allowed a Columbus police officer stopped in Starkville on March 9 on suspicion of driving under the influence to go home without as much as a citation.
During the stop, SPD's Officer Henderson observed CPD's Louis Alexander was under the influence of alcohol, saying at one point "I don't think he's drunk. I know he's drunk."
Yet, when Henderson alerted a SPD superior, the superior said he'll "take care of it." Instead of being booked in jail like any civilian, Alexander was quietly allowed to ride home with another CPD officer called to pick him up.
Initially Nichols, who wasn't consulted before the decision was made to let Alexander go, defended his officers' actions. He described the issue as "political," saying SPD doesn't get involved in such politics.
Turns out, SPD was involved in politics of another kind, and in a press conference Wednesday at police headquarters Nichols owned up to it, admitting it was professional courtesy -- what he called an "unwritten rule of law enforcement" -- for officers to take care of their own at traffic stops.
Not only did Nichols admit the practice, he denounced it, proclaiming that professional courtesy would never again be extended by SPD. He also announced a policy change that would require arrests for all DUIs.
Nichols' honesty is refreshing, his changed attitude toward the situation much more appropriate.
He seems to realize his officers violated the public trust, and he stood out front as committed to the long slog of regaining that trust.
We commend Nichols for that but not without caveat.
When those in power use their authority to apply a different standard to themselves than they do those they are charged with serving, it's certainly "political" if not outright corrupt. In this case -- with a police department deliberately giving an impaired driver a pass for DUI -- it's dangerous.
Laws should apply to everyone equally. If anything, police should be held to a higher standard, not get extra protection when they break the law.
Nichols seemed fine with the "unwritten rule of professional courtesy" until it burned him. And both SPD and CPD seemed content to conceal what happened until journalism made that no longer possible.
In Columbus, Chief Fred Shelton didn't notify city councilmen until he learned The Dispatch was about to break the story -- a full week after the stop occurred. A few days later, councilmen suspended Alexander for 30 days for "conduct unbecoming."
Who knows if Starkville aldermen knew before they read it in the paper? And what will they now have to investigate in regards to discipline for the officers involved?
Ultimately, there was accountability within both police departments for this traffic stop and how it was handled. The troubling part is the accountability had to be forced.
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