Panel probes discrimination claims at Miss. patrol

Published 11:04 pm Thursday, February 19, 2009

An independent panel of three prominent attorneys is investigating accusations that the Mississippi Highway Patrol has discriminated against black troopers in hiring and promotions, Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson says.

Several black troopers filed a complaint in January with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — the first step toward filing a lawsuit. The EEOC would have to clear the way for a lawsuit to be filed.

Simpson told legislators Wednesday that attorneys Reuben Anderson, Jim Roberts and Amy Whitten will have full access to patrol records, including personnel files and tests given for promotions.

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“They can interview whoever they want, where ever they want, without my permission,” said Simpson, who became commissioner in mid-2008.

Anderson and Roberts are former state Supreme Court justices, and Whitten serves on the state College Board. Roberts also was public safety commissioner from 1984-88.

State Sen. David Jordan, a Democrat from Greenwood, chairs a legislative committee that investigates state agencies. He said Wednesday that several black troopers say they have been subjected to racial slurs. Jordan said some of the black troopers who have worked for the Highway Patrol for 10 to 25 years and believe they have been unfairly passed over for promotions that were given to less-qualified white officers.

“What you’ve got with the Highway Patrol is different than what you’ve got with other citizens,” Jordan said. “They must cover each other’s backs. And with that kind of animosity out there, I wouldn’t want anybody covering my back, would you?”

Derrick Johnson, president of the Mississippi branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the NAACP has been looking into accusations of racial discrimination within the Highway Patrol for about three years, and he believes the black troopers have “valid claims.”

The Mississippi Highway Patrol was forced to racially integrate after a lawsuit by black law enforcement officers in the 1970s, and the patrol remained under a federal consent decree until early this decade, Johnson said. The decree was designed to eliminate discriminatory practices in hiring, firing and promotions. Johnson talk about unfair treatment arose after the consent decree was lifted.

“Now, we’re repeating history,” Johnson said Wednesday night.

Simpson said the Mississippi Highway Patrol has 608 troopers. He said 387 of the troopers, or nearly 64 percent, are white men. He said 208 are black men, six are white women, three are black women. He said two troopers are Hispanic and two are Asian.

Simpson told lawmakers that they, too, could have full access to Highway Patrol documents if they want. He said he will disclose full results of the investigation, but he didn’t specify when the investigation might end.

Simpson said Anderson, Roberts and Whitten are working without pay.

Jordan and several other lawmakers said they are satisfied, for now, with the way the commissioner is allowing the investigation to take place.

“I’m impressed with what you’re doing,” Sen. Sampson Jackson, a Democrat from DeKalb, told Simpson.