TUPELO, Miss.—Rankin County Sheriff Bryan Bailey should resign, Democratic candidate for Mississippi Attorney General Greta Kemp Martin said at a press conference in Tupelo, Miss., on Sept. 22.
Last month, six white Rankin County officers pleaded guilty to state and federal charges for the physical and sexual assault of two Black men, Michael Jenkins and Eddie Terrell Parker. The officers called themselves the “goon squad” because of their willingness to use excessive force.
If elected, Martin said she would launch an investigation into the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department “especially if the current administration does not resign.”
“We believe that the current administration had knowledge of what was happening with the Rankin County six,” she said.
A lawsuit Jenkins and Parker filed against the six officers, Rankin County and the sheriff alleges that Bailey “failed to reprimand” the officers for previous violence against citizens.
“(Bailey) directly participates in acts of excessive force with the deputies he supervises and has been denied qualified immunity by this court,” the lawsuit alleges.
It also alleges that officers did not turn on their body cameras in several cases, including on Jan. 24, 2023—the date when Rankin County deputies Brett McAlpin, Hunter Elward, Christian Dedmon, Daniel Opdyke and Jeffry Middleton joined off-duty Richland officer Joshua Hartfield in raiding Jenkins’ and Parker’s Braxton, Miss., home without a warrant.
“Bailey created a custom that Rankin Deputies were permitted to turn off body-worn cameras to cover up their misdeeds,” the lawsuit alleges.
Sheriff Bailey: ‘I’m Going To Stay Here’
Mississippi law does not require officers to wear body cameras, but Martin said if elected, she would help push legislation to mandate body cameras for police officers. The attorney general cannot make laws but can interpret existing laws and make recommendations to lawmakers about laws the state needs to put in place. Officers should wear and turn on their body cameras for “transparency and accountability,” she said.
“We will ensure that the footage is regularly reviewed in incidents involving abuse of force or misconduct,” Martin said.
Bailey announced in a June 27 press conference that the sheriff’s department had fired the five deputies involved in the raid at Jenkins and Parker’s home. Richland Police Chief Nick McLendon said his department had also fired Hartfield in a July 3 letter to the community.
“Based on the facts in their guilty pleas, all former deputies lied to me the night of the incident. We have cooperated fully with all outside investigative agencies to uncover the truth and bring justice to the victims,” Bailey said in an Aug. 3 press conference. “We have also sought assistance from outside agencies and consultants to help us with repairing trust within our community.”
Bailey is seeking reelection for his fourth term and is running unopposed in the Nov. 7 election. He said in an Aug. 3 press conference that he has no plans to resign.
“The only thing I’m guilty of on this incident right here is trusting grown men who swore an oath to do their job correctly,” the sheriff said. “I’m guilty of that, but the people of Rankin County elected me to do a good job during good times and bad times. I’m going to stay here. I’m not going to resign. I’m going to fix these problems and try to leave this (department) in better shape than I found it.”
Fitch ‘Overlooked Compelling Evidence,’ Martin Says
If elected, Martin said her top priority as attorney general would be to “swiftly” investigate officer-involved violence against Mississippians, adding that her office would “dedicate resources to expedite these investigations.”
“It’s a fine, delicate balance between being an ally for law enforcement but also providing the oversight needed to ensure the public trust if misconduct has occurred involving police,” she said.
Martin’s father, Tishomingo Police Chief Mike Kemp, her mother and her stepmother stood alongside her at the press conference as she spoke.
The Mississippi Free Press asked Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch on July 7 if she was investigating Jenkins’ and Parker’s case, but a spokesperson said the attorney general does not “comment on open investigations.”
Fitch did not publicly comment on Jenkins’ and Parker’s case until she issued a press release after the offices entered guilty pleas.
“Without a relationship of trust between law enforcement officers and those they swear to serve and protect, our fight for justice and against crime is doomed to fail,” she said in the Aug. 3 statement. “This brutal attack caused more than physical harm to these two individual victims; it severed that vital trust with the people. This abuse of power will not be tolerated. The Attorney General’s Office is committed to delivering justice for these victims and for all Mississippians.”
Martin accused Fitch of not acting quickly and waiting to investigate the case until after the U.S. attorney general’s office stepped in.
“Most recently, Attorney General Lynn Fitch demonstrated a true failure in her role by disregarding the outcry over the brutal violence inflicted on citizens by the Rankin County ‘goon squad,’” Martin said. “She turned a blind eye to grieving mothers’ pleas for justice and overlooked compelling evidence of police brutality, only reacting when the federal government intervened.”
Asked about the remark, the attorney general’s office pointed to the Aug. 3 press release, with Hancock noting the portion that says Mississippi Deputy Attorney General Mary Helen Wall is leading the prosecution of the state case and “was deputized as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney for the federal case and worked with the Department of Justice to secure this plea agreement.” The Mississippi attorney general’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office “were in lockstep on this throughout the process, long before anything was announced to the public,” Hancock said, adding that being deputized allowed Wall “to work the case in tandem with the U.S. attorney’s office and effectuate a global federal-state plea deal.”
Mississippi’s ‘Growing Mental Health Problem’
At her press conference on Sept. 22, Greta Kemp Martin also expressed her disagreement with Attorney General Lynn Fitch on mental health in Mississippi. Last week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overturned a 2019 ruling that would have required Mississippi to give the same protections for people with mental illnesses as offered to other people covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The overturned 2019 ruling said Mississippi relies too heavily on institutionalizing people with mental illnesses instead of providing ample community care, often leaving untreated Mississippians in jails or prisons. Fitch applauded the ruling in a Sept. 20 statement.
“We are pleased that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed the lower court’s ruling that gave the federal government the ability to dictate the way Mississippi provides mental healthcare to its citizens,” she said. “… For too long, federal agencies have used the threat of legal action based on ‘novel theor[ies] of liability,’ like those that started this case, to coerce Mississippi and other states into adopting their preferred policies and budget priorities. This opinion is a good reminder to Washington that the people have the right to speak through their state elected leaders to set their own priorities.”
Martin, who is the litigation director for Disability Rights Mississippi, criticized Fitch for “overturning the only effort in place to improve mental health care services in Mississippi.” She said the State needs to “find solutions for our growing mental health problem” and that jails and prisons are not the proper places to send people with mental illnesses.
“Expecting Mississippi jails to act as holding facilities is not a solution when a person is in a mental health crisis, nor is it fair to law enforcement officers,” Martin said, proposing “specialized crisis prevention training” for all Mississippi officers.
“This training equips law enforcement personnel with the skills necessary to de-escalate situations involving individuals experiencing mental health issues or substance abuse problems,” she said. “Our approach prioritizes the safety and wellbeing of all individuals involved and aims to prevent unnecessary use of force.”
Martin faces incumbent Fitch in the Mississippi general election on Nov. 7.
The general election is Nov. 7. Register to vote in person by Oct. 9, 2023, or the mailed voter applications must be postmarked by Oct. 10, 2023, to qualify to vote on Election Day. The secretary of state’s website has more information at sos.ms.gov.