May 7, 2009
Four Columbus police officers on a training visit to Vicksburg are being accused of riding around the Vicksburg National Military Park in a Columbus police cruiser, playing loud music and flashing their lights and sirens at passersby, among other behavior.
According to a park visitor who witnessed the Tuesday afternoon incident, the foursome were riding around the park in the marked police cruiser, flashing the car''s blue lights and sounding the siren at passersby. Two of the officers were riding in the trunk, seated with the trunk open.
"I did call the (park) ranger," said the visitor, who wished to remain unidentified. "The ranger showed up and tried to stop them."
According to the park visitor, one female ranger responded to the scene in an attempt to stop the police car, but the officers refused to pull over.
"It''s scary when you have older people, tourists coming through the military park, and here you have people who are supposed to be responsible, authoritative people," he said.
"It''s a nice, quiet park. It''s a beautiful place, and the people of Warren County respect it," he added.
Although much information regarding the incident is pending a Columbus Police Department investigation, CPD Chief Joseph St. John confirmed witnesses in the park reported loud music coming from the police cruiser and the officers using the vehicle''s flashers to deter park visitors from approaching it.
However, St. John added, much about the incident remains unknown.
"Honestly, there is just so much about this that we don''t know right now," St. John said Wednesday. "I don''t want to sound cryptic or anything with my details, but I''d rather wait and make sure I know exactly what happened before I release anything to the newspaper, especially if anything I said now turned out to be false later."
"I''m hoping that in the next few days, we will be able to release more about this, but I just want to make sure I get the whole story first," St. John added.
Although St. John said no criminal activity was reported in the incident, he said firm action would be taken against the officers if they were found guilty of any wrongdoing.
"I can assure you there was no criminal activity involved in this incident. If there was, I would have been the first to tell you about it," said St. John. "I can also promise you that if any of our officers did anything wrong, we are going to do something about it."
The four officers were in Vicksburg for a three-day field sobriety training course sponsored by Sobriety Trained Officers Representing Mississippi, or S.T.O.R.M.
Though St. John would not reveal the identities of the officers involved in the incident, the Columbus City Council in April approved the training trip, including a vehicle and expenses, for Cpl. Spence Wallingford and officers Wade Beard, Heath Beard and Robert Walker.
An apology to the supervising park ranger and to the citizens of Vicksburg was to be issued following the officers'' departure from the conference Wednesday, S.T.O.R.M. Chairman Michael D. Vick said in a statement.
"S.T.O.R.M. does not condone or tolerate any type of disrespectful behavior by its members," Vick said in a statement. "Whether any action will be taken will be at the discretion of the individual agencies and their disciplinary boards."
For the park patron who reported the incident and who regularly runs at the military park, the incident struck a personal chord.
"I have a daughter who went to The W, and it just made me think," he said. "If there was an incident there, these are the people who are supposed to be protecting her."
Because the military park is under the jurisdiction of park rangers employed by the National Park Service, neither Vicksburg nor Warren County law enforcement agencies were involved in the incident. Vick said alcohol was not involved in the matter.
This story contains reporting from Danny Barrett Jr., of the Vicksburg Post.