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Mississippi police department that caused mistrial has ‘competency issues’ in its investigations unit, expert says

Brookhaven hired an independent investigator last month after a grand jury cited a number of issues within the police department, including a “lack of professionalism.”
Brookhaven Police Department detective Vincent Fernando
Brookhaven Police Detective Vincent Fernando testifies in Brookhaven, Miss., at the trial of two white men accused of chasing and shooting at a Black FedEx driver who had dropped off a package at a home.Hunter Cloud / The Daily Leader via AP file

The Mississippi police department that recently caused a mistrial in a case that drew national attention has “competency issues” in its investigations unit that impede the department’s effectiveness, an independent investigator concluded.

The city of Brookhaven hired William Harmening, a retired law enforcement officer, to review its police department last month after a Lincoln County grand jury cited a number of issues within the agency, including a “lack of professionalism.”

Harmening was tasked with investigating the grand jury’s complaints and completing a review of the department, Mayor Joe Cox said in a statement Thursday.

Two criminal justice professors — one at the University of Mississippi and the other at the University of Southern Mississippi — also reviewed all aspects of the independent probe, Cox said.

The Board of Aldermen adopted Harmening’s report at its meeting Tuesday and voted to retain him to assist the city “with updating the policies and procedures addressed in his review,” said Cox, who pledged to “operate with transparency, efficiency and professionalism.”

In the scathing report in July, a Lincoln County grand jury said that after having considered dozens of criminal cases presented by the Brookhaven Police Department, it found that officers “poorly investigate their cases,” that the department has a habit of witness-blaming, that it is complacent, that it “does not complete investigations in a timely manner” and that it “is arresting individuals without sufficient probable cause,” among other issues.

In mid-August, a little over a month after the grand jury issued its report, a judge declared a mistrial in the case of a white father and his son who were accused of chasing and shooting at a Black FedEx driver who had dropped off a package at a home after it was revealed that a Brookhaven police detective withheld evidence.

'In need of rebuilding'

Harmening’s 32-page report included his recommendations “for enhancing” the department’s effectiveness and professionalism.

He wrote that his evaluation included a review of the department’s policies and procedures, as well as discussions with Lee Bates, the district attorney for Lincoln, Pike and Walthall counties, and Brookhaven police officers, including Chief Kenneth Collins and his command staff.

“They were all cordial however, I was not allowed access to certain requested items, including personnel and investigative files,” he said in the report.

Harmening said he learned that the department “is in need of rebuilding.”

“The department is going through what many departments of its size have experienced, and sometimes it becomes necessary to draw a line in the sand and basically start over,” he wrote.

The department serves about 11,600 residents in the city about 55 miles south of the state capital, Jackson. It had 27 officers, including its chief, as of last month.

He cited a number of issues within the department, including “a severe manpower shortage,” “a confusing and inefficient command structure,” “a lack of officer training,” “competency issues” in its investigations unit and “a lack of integration with the two prosecutors’ offices they work with.”

“These are all problems that can be fixed with time, a new set of well-defined policies and protocols, and a new vision for the Department,” he wrote.

Collins, the chief, did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Harmening also recommended creating a police committee within the Board of Aldermen, composed of the mayor, two board members and the city attorney.

FedEx driver D'Monterrio Gibson
FedEx driver D'Monterrio Gibson at a news conference in Ridgeland, Miss., in February 2022.Rogelio V. Solis / AP file

Problematic hiring, disciplinary practices

Harmening faulted the department’s hiring practices, writing that it “does not currently utilize a comprehensive and standardized hiring methodology.”

He said that background investigations are not conducted and that, “contrary to their own policies, there is no polygraph exam or psychological assessment.” He said he discovered that officers have “been hired with a criminal background and subsequent name change,” “with a known addiction to prescription drugs” and “even with a DUI in their past,” all of which, he wrote, are unacceptable in law enforcement.

“Less than quality hires will inevitably result in short-term employment and constant turnover,” he wrote.

He also said the department has two conflicting and “problematic” disciplinary policies, neither of which it appears is being followed, which “creates a legal morass that is worse than having no policy at all.”

Mistrial in 2022 shooting

Harmening wrote that there is probably not an issue in the police department “that needs more immediate attention than its Investigations Unit” and cited the mistrial of the two white men in the attempted murder case.

A judge declared a mistrial in the case of Brandon Case and his father, Gregory Case, after Brookhaven Police Detective Vincent Fernando acknowledged under oath that he did not give the prosecution or the defense a videotaped statement police had taken from D’Monterrio Gibson, a former FedEx driver whom the men were accused of shooting at and chasing in January 2022. Gibson was not injured.

The case drew national attention and comparisons to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in 2020.

Harmening’s report said his assertion that the department lacked a “qualified and competent” investigative unit was supported by the district attorney, Bates.

Bates told him, according to the report, that there were cases that were insufficiently investigated before they were brought to him for prosecution, that there were “cases where he personally went to the crime scene at a later date and time only to find important evidence that had been missed or left behind by detectives,” that there were “cases where obvious clues were missed” and that Bates had told him that at least one police detective “is not allowed to bring him a case because of their inability to conduct a proper investigation.”

Cox did not give a timeline for when the police department will update its policies and procedures.