Officer misconduct legislation moving through Legislature

Published 6:50 am Wednesday, March 20, 2024

By Sid Salter

The Mississippi Legislature is purposefully and earnestly moving legislation through the Capitol that would make it easier to prosecute law enforcement officer misconduct. This effort is long overdue and represents unfinished business in our state.

There are two lingering stereotypes of Southern law enforcement types, particularly county sheriffs and their deputies. One’s a pipe dream and the other is a nightmare.

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The first is all about Mayberry Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barney Fife. The sheriff doesn’t wear a sidearm, the deputy has only one bullet (in his pocket!) and Aunt Bee cooks first-rate meals for the prisoners.

On a good day, there is Appalachian bluegrass music and gospel singing from the Darlings – and the meanest hombre in Mayberry is the rock-throwing hillbilly miscreant Ernest T. Bass. In Mayberry, law enforcement is a necessary but civilized affair in which town drunk Otis Campbell locks himself in his jail cell to sleep it off in the comfortable quarters.

The other Southern sheriff stereotype is less quaint and provincial than Mayberry. It’s a stereotype of big-bellied, belligerent and violent men with guns, nightsticks and malicious intent. At times in the South and particularly in Mississippi, some of those “lawmen” were identified as being in league with the Ku Klux Klan and functioned with the sanction of the badge.

In 2003, William & Mary College scholar Grace Earle Hill wrote a sobering account of law enforcement’s role in the evolution of the Civil Rights movement in the South titled “Caretakers of the Color Line: Southern Sheriffs in the 20th Century” that painted a vivid picture of one such former Mississippi lawmen who drew national attention during and after the 1964 Klan murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney.

“As Sheriff Lawrence Rainey often said, ‘It’s always better to stop something before it happens instead of waiting till after it happens.’ For Rainey, that ‘something’ was the steady arrival of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. 

After the disappearance of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, the nation soon discovered that Rainey was a man of his word. He believed that his sheriff’s uniform had “a lot to do with” the work required by the office, and certainly, his appearance suggested that he took his job seriously.

“At six feet two inches and 240 pounds, Rainey was a formidable figure. The belt line of his khaki uniform bulged with polished leather, burnished brass and lead ammunition, and a heavy holstered gun. Easily recognizable with his calf-length boots, a cattleman’s hat turned up on the sides atop a balding head, and a fist-sized chaw of tobacco in his jaw, he roamed about town in his big gray Oldsmobile equipped with the trappings of his office—a siren, red light, loudspeaker, armament, gilt-lettered doors, and extra cartons of Red Man.”

While a Philadelphia Police Department officer in 1959, Rainey was not prosecuted for the shooting death of Luther Jackson, a Black army combat veteran, during a roadside stop. The incident was ruled “justifiable homicide.”

Six years later, because there was no federal murder charge in that era, Rainey was one of 17 indicted in 1965 for violating the civil rights of Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney. Rainey was acquitted during a federal trial in 1967. He died of cancer in 2002.

The vast majority of Mississippi law enforcement officers are dedicated, selfless and committed to protecting and serving the taxpayers. They are to be respected and valued. But for that to happen, there must be a structure to hold the small minority of rogue officers accountable for abusing the public trust.

The state’s recent economic development successes and other gains are hampered and derailed by modern-day headlines about police brutality and racism in our state. It takes people back to Mississippi’s bad old days and ways.

From the Legislature to the Mississippi Board on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Training to the Mississippi Law Enforcement Officers’ Training Academy, the time has come to protect the public and honest, decent lawmen from the tiny few who disgrace the badge.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at