Hoping to recruit more officers and keep those still on board, McComb officials made moves Tuesday to raise pay in an effort to overcome a chronic police shortage.

 At least six officers have recently left, causing some speculation surrounding the department’s well-being.

However, Police Chief Garland Ward said that while the department may be short-staffed, it is doing its best to fill positions and fulfill its duty.

Not including administrative positions, there are now just 14 uniformed officers and two detectives on the force, with a total department roster of 19 including Ward, a deputy chief and a captain.  In recent years the department has had as many as 33 officers.

“We all work in the streets and perform dual roles,” Ward said.

The department lost six patrol positions to budget cuts in March, capping the number of available positions at 27 until the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.

Recently the department has seen other officers leave, with some going to local agencies that pay more per hour, aren’t understaffed on shifts and in some cases allow them to take their police vehicle home.

To offer officers an incentive to stay, Ward asked the city board Tuesday to approve a restructuring of the department by reducing the roster by another four positions, which would allow police officers and department employees to receive a raise.

“All I am asking is for you to allow me to use the money that is already allocated in my budget to increase the pay for the police department,” he said. “I am not asking you for a millage hike or anything.”

Ward’s plan would allow for a raise in starting pay from $13.48 to $15.73 an hour for non-certified officers and from $15.73 to $16.31 for certified officers.

Mayor Quordiniah Lockley said it was possible to make these changes but it would shift the entire pay scale on which promotions are based, meaning every individual position would need a new starting salary.

Selectman Michael Cameron asked how this would affect the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, recalling the large budget cut the board approved in March.

Lockley said the cut eliminated six officers’ salaries, but that’s only in effect until October.

Cameron, who said he was unaware that police positions had recently been eliminated already, asked Lockley if Ward was aware that six jobs had already been cut. Ward said he was not aware of the specifics of the previous cuts.

Cameron asked Lockley about his knowledge of the cuts, and Lockley said he was unaware of where the money had been trimmed, noting that former city administrator Dirkland Smith, who was fired in June, made the adjustments to the budget. Lockley told Cameron he became aware of the specifics of the cuts during a special called meeting last week.

That’s when city officials discovered that none of the budget cuts the board approved in March were put in the various department budgets. Lockley said that issue has been addressed and it shouldn’t affect Ward’s restructuring plans.

“I am quite sure we are not going to make any major purchases,” Ward said. “I am still trying to figure out were all my money went. The money is gone, but I still have enough to do what I want to do.”

After the discussion, the board voted 5-0 to approve the restructuring, with Selectman Donovan Hill absent.

During the meeting, the board voted to hire Pike County native and 13-year police veteran David Cullum as a patrol officer. Cullum was previously a Pike County sheriff’s investigator and also spent time as a police chief in a small town in Illinois.

“It’s good to be home,” he said.” I am very much a team player, and with an affirmative vote from y’all, I’d be happy to join the team here.”

Selectman Devante Johnson said Cullum would make a good addition to the department.

“I think he will be a great asset to the team,” he said.

Lockley addressed the recent departure of police officers and said it is not Ward’s fault.

“You’re doing your part in trying to get policemen here,” Lockley said. “You have brought at least four or five officers to be hired. You cannot be blamed for police officers leaving. You are doing your efforts to get police officers here in McComb.”

Johnson praised Ward for the increased police presence in the city, noting that he has seen the investigative team “actually working.”

“I think we are on the brink of doing great things here in solving and preventing crimes,” he said.

Use of force policy adopted

In another matter, the board voted unanimously to adopt the amended use of force policy Lockley and board attorney Angela Cockerham drafted with input from Ward.

Ward noted that the department did most of the actions listed in the amended policy, but he and Lockley wanted it in writing for officers to see.

The policy requires officers to exhaust all other means of restraint before resorting to deadly force, and it would require officers to give a verbal warning before shooting at a person unless giving a verbal warning is impossible.

It also bans the use of chokeholds, strangleholds, hog-tying, placing a knee on someone’s neck or any other use of force that limits a person’s ability to breathe.

The board also noted that the signatures on each policy were outdated, noting the signature on the police department policies were from former police Chief Greg Martin.

Selectman Ronnie Brock asked Ward how long it would take officers to become aware of the new policy, and Ward noted it would take one or two weeks to brief every officer.

“We don’t want a rogue to come in and do something,” Lockley said.

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