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TUPELO • When Capt. Tim Bell went to the Tupelo Police Department’s internal affairs division in 2018, he was fed up with one of his colleagues — so much so that he asked investigators to find a reason to fire her.
According to transcripts of sworn testimony, Bell, who is white and the commander of the department’s patrol division, did not like Tiffany Gilleylen, one of the highest-ranking Black female officers within that same division.
Lynette Sandlin, an internal affairs investigator who is white, testified in a deposition that after the deputy chief asked internal affairs to open an investigation into Gilleylen, Bell came with a request.
“Tim Bell, he said — let’s see. What was his exact words? ‘I’ll buy y’all a steak dinner if you’ll get that b—- gone,’” Sandlin recalled Bell saying about Gilleylen.
Nothing ever came of the internal affairs investigation, and Bell’s comments raise new questions about local law enforcement culture even as a new police chief is set to take over in January.
Bell has applied for the open police chief position and is one of eight candidates granted a formal interview with Mayor Todd Jordan’s administration.
Last week, Bell declined to answer questions from the Daily Journal about some of the claims reported here from litigation testimony.
New chief to take charge of a tumultuous department
Problems at the Tupelo Police Department go back at least to the 1970s, when a pair of police officers beat a Black man, spurring protests in a city that avoided destructive violence during integration.
The 1990s saw the city newly emphasize community partnerships, and efforts to fight crime while earning trust in the Black-majority Haven Acres area earned national attention and academic study.
But personnel turmoil and litigation have remained persistent features among the city’s law enforcement.
A recent series of lawsuits by former officers have produced hundreds of pages of sworn testimony that vividly portray the fault lines a new chief will be forced to take on. These documents indicate that Jordan’s police chief pick will inherit a department plagued by in-fighting, factionalism and allegations of racism, sexism and bias.
The new chief will also take over following significant turnover in the upper ranks of the department, including the recent retirement of a chief widely regarded as weak and the departure of a divisive deputy chief.
On Nov. 10, a federal judge dismissed the most recent lawsuit, brought by former Lt. Michael Russell, because it settled right before a trial was set to commence.
‘It’s a hard road as a Black female in law enforcement.’
The most recent suits, brought by three different former officers, involve a linked series of allegations that promotion practices at TPD are infected by rampant cronyism and sexism, and that mistreatment of female officers is common and tolerated.
Wisam Guerriere, a Jordanian female officer who has since left the department, testified in 2017 that her male colleagues routinely made obscene hand gestures at her with their middle finger and nicknamed her a “terrorist,” a xenophobic and racist remark about her ethnicity.
Guerriere would not say which specific colleagues harassed her in the workplace, but said, “most of my shift did.”
Jim Waide, a prominent Northeast Mississippi trial lawyer, asked Guerriere during a deposition if she reported the incidents to her supervisor. She said that she did. Her supervisor, Lee Miller, reportedly told her to confront her colleagues and ask them to stop.
“But nothing changed,” Guerriere said after she followed his instructions.
Guerriere said that Miller was also one of the people who would harass her, adding more questions about the environment that male Tupelo police leaders create for female officers, particularly female subordinates.
“I don’t know how to explain it to you,” Guerriere said of Miller’s treatment toward her. “Just the way he talks to other people. I mean, he says — talks to all the other officers, and he really doesn’t speak to me. Like he just walks by me and ignores me.”
Jennifer Baker Skalak, a white former police officer with the department, also testified that she experienced sexual harassment at the department working under a shift Miller led.
“It was an absolutely horrible experience,” Skalak said of the shift. “I don’t know how else to describe it other than the fact that I dealt with being berated, talked down to, sexually harassed.”
After Skalak filed a sexual harassment claim against Miller, he was moved to lead a different department, according to the depositions.
Skalak sued the city in 2017, and it was settled in 2019 during the middle of the trial.
In addition to Skalak’s suit, Gilleylen — the officer Bell wanted fired — has twice sued the police department, settling both times.
“It’s a hard road as a Black female in law enforcement, period,” Gilleylen said in a deposition.
Claims of racism among the upper ranks lodged at TPD leadership
Other officers testified that moving officers around was not just a way to deal with sexual harassment claims — it was also used to block Black officers from advancing in their careers.
The police department has implemented a promotion system intended to be largely objective. Applicants get awarded certain points for every criteria they meet.
But one police officer said that administrative officials have just found ways to skirt the system.
“They’re doing the interview and testing,” Sgt. Michael Bowens said. “But they put who they want in the places that they want to put them. It’s like playing chess.”
Russell, who is white, sued the department in 2020. He was transferred from his position as director of the Police Athletic League to an open leadership position in the patrol division and alleges that this was done to block Gilleylen from getting promoted into the open position.
Gilleylen made the same claim in her second suit.
Police leadership have disputed this allegation and said Russell was moved because an experienced leader was urgently needed on that particular patrol shift.
“I desperately needed manpower,” Bell said in a deposition.
Beyond hiring practices, some officers have outlined broader claims of racism infecting the attitudes andpractices of leadership at the department.
“The law should be applied evenly, and it’s not happening here,” Skalak told the Daily Journal in a previous interview, abd saud racially uneven enforcement of the law occurs.
Other officers testified to personally perceiving prejudiced attitudes from high places in the department.
“You can feel racism,” Michael Bowens, who is Black, said in a deposition. “(Former Deputy Chief) Allan Gilbert was really good at hiding it. There’s an old saying where I come from: ‘He laid the mayonnaise on the piece of bread pretty good.'”
In his own deposition, Gilbert denied these sentiments.
“I’m not a racist,” Gilbert said, also insisting that he treated officers fairly regardless of race.
Police department lacked firm leadership
During his tenure as deputy chief, Gilbert was a divisive figure in the department, with many officers claiming that he was the de facto leader of the organization.
Bowens, Gilleylen and former deputy chief Robert Hall all testified that Aguirre was a good person but delegated most of his leadership authority to Gilbert. Hall, who himself left the department under a cloud, never served during Aguirre’s time as chief.
“Good-hearted man,” Hall said of Aguirre. “But my opinion of Bart is, is that he didn’t have a good, I guess, grasp on what was going on under him. And that’s just opinion.”
Gilbert retired from the department in 2019. He is now the chief of police in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.
Roughly a year after Gilbert left, Aguirre also announced that he would retire from the department, creating a power vacuum for the new mayor to fill.
Final decision on new chief expected soon
Jackie Clayton, the interim police chief, has repeatedly said that he is retiring at the end of December, meaning that the mayor will name a permanent chief by the end of the year or appoint another interim chief after Clayton retires.
Jordan said he intends to appoint a police chief by the end of November and has confirmed he is interviewing eight finalists, with input from a six-person citizens committee.
The Daily Journal has previously reported that the finalists include Bell, TPD Capt. Chuck McDougald, and John Quaka, an FBI agent based in Oxford.
Once Jordan names his police chief pick from the eight finalists, the Tupelo City Council must confirm or reject the nominee.
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