Vicksburg matter offers opportunity to get better

May 23, 2009



I appreciate the sentiments expressed in your May 21 editorial. The dialogue created by this incident, while at times painful, has been valuable both to the department and the community. 


It''s the kind of open communication, both with the media and citizens, I''ve advocated during my almost two years on the job in Columbus; I believe it makes us all better. 


I apologize for the press release e-mailed to the media Wednesday morning. In our rush to satisfy the deadlines of the local media, we failed - and failed miserably - to meet the professional standards - and expectations - on which we pride ourselves. 


It won''t happen again. 


But that e-mail apology never was intended to be the end of the situation. I, nor the department, would handle a matter of this magnitude with a cavalier attitude. I spoke with the Vicksburg Post to ensure the newspaper and the community knew I was deeply concerned about and sorry for what happened.  


More importantly, I apologized to the park ranger, the person most harmed by our officers'' actions; I spoke with her by phone, person to person, the way she wished to be contacted and the way communication should be handled. 


I will never be a letter writer, use fancy words to explain my position, or hide behind anonymity. I will speak to you with respect face-to-face. 


Criticism of the timeliness of the investigation and the City Council''s action is unfair. 


The department acted promptly upon learning of the incident involving our four officers and the Lowndes County sheriff''s deputy at the Vicksburg National Military Park. Our action - calling our officers home within hours after the incident - was disclosed promptly to the public via the media. 


At the same time and throughout the process, we were careful to protect the officers'' rights - and the integrity of the investigation - by not rushing to judgment or disclosing information that might be incorrect or prejudicial. 


That is the way we handle every investigation, regardless of the allegations or who is involved. 


Our job is to study the facts, give both sides and opportunity to have their say and then decide how to proceed. Rushing to action for the sake of expediency or in response to pressure from outsiders is not fair to anyone under any circumstances. 


Unfortunately, we can''t control what others say or disclose about a case, regardless of its factual basis. 


Immediately after the officers returned, our internal affairs lieutenant took over the investigation and spent most of the next five days, including the weekend, gathering facts. He turned his preliminary report over to me early the next week. I reviewed those findings and sought clarification. 


It''s the kind of thoroughness and objective investigation the public - the people we serve - expect and deserve. 


We kept the public informed and I responded to every person who contacted our department, sometimes speaking at great length about the concerns they raised. 


In the end, I made inquiries on my own because the seriousness of the allegations warranted it. I love this community and do not want to see our fine department and city embarrassed. 


My findings and recommendations were placed on the first available City Council agenda. It''s easy for outsiders to make quick decisions based on emotions and not facts but this matter could not - and should not - have been handled any more quickly. 


Sadly, lost in the discussion is the hard work our officers do every day. I am proud of the accomplishments of the Columbus Police Department and the fine men and women who risk their lives to protect and serve the community. 


Too often, we take those efforts for granted but even while a very few officers were doing things that outraged many in our community, 15 times as many were keeping their commitment to the department''s and the community''s dignity, integrity and professionalism. 


Again, I apologize to the citizens of Columbus and Vicksburg. We fell short of our goal on May 5; we are humans, not robots. I ask each community to understand we - all of us at the Columbus Police Department including, I believe, the four officers at fault in the Vicksburg case - are dedicated to excellence and will work even harder to uphold that commitment.  




Joseph St. John 




The writer is the Columbus police chief.