Jury: Columbus didn’t discriminate in passing over black officer for police chief

Published 10:10 pm Saturday, June 23, 2007

The city of Columbus did not discriminate against Joe Johnson when it passed over the black officer to name a white police chief, a federal jury in Oxford has found.

The verdict came Wednesday in Johnson’s lawsuit against the city. Johnson, who is black and was interim police chief at the time, had alleged the decision to hire J.D. Sanders in 2003 was racially motivated.

Key testimony came earlier this week from former Mayor Jeffrey Rupp, who broke a tie vote to hire Sanders after the city council voted 3-3, along racial lines in 2003.

Rupp said his decision to hire Sanders was based on a $250,000 Operation Support Services study, which noted the Columbus Police Department was in disarray and no one inside the department could fix the problems.

Kimla Johnson, one of Johnson’s attorneys, told the jury that the Columbus Police Department had promoted from within for 50 years “until it got to Joe Johnson.”

“And Mayor Rupp said there was a good-old boy, Bubba network he was trying to dispel. How better to dispel a good-old boy system, which usually means there is a white male replaced by a white male, than by hiring Joe Johnson?” Kimla Johnson said.

The city’s attorney — W. Thomas Siler Jr. — said the council vote largely was irrelevant, as no action was taken by the council, since Rupp had to vote to break the tie.

“That city council in 2003 did nothing; they required Jeffrey Rupp to make a decision,” Siler said. “Joe Johnson is a good man; he’s a fine fellow. (But) that’s not what this is about.

“It’s about whether someone is the right person to be a chief of police in Columbus at the time.”

Johnson joined the Columbus Police Department in 1974 as a patrolman and subsequently advanced through the ranks to the position of assistant chief. He served as interim chief from August 2003 to November 2003 and has served as the interim chief since October 2006 following the departure of Sanders, who left to take a job in Franklin, Tenn.

Johnson currently is one of four finalists for the permanent police chief position. Through his Tupelo-based attorney, Jim Waide, Johnson, is urging the city to name him chief despite the jury’s finding.

Asked about the possibility of an appeal, Waide responded, “Probably, the most likely thing is we’ll urge the city to give him the job now and make it a moot issue. We’re hopeful they’ll just give him the job now; there’s no reason not to.

“Joe’s very disappointed in losing the case; however, he’s very encouraged by the overwhelming show of support of the police officers,” Waide said.

The four finalists recently were interviewed in open sessions and the council is scheduled to vote July 2 on who should be named chief.