The Mississippi Association of Chiefs of Police announced it will begin posting report cards for state lawmakers on how supportive they are of law enforcement issues backed by the group that represents 330 departments statewide.

The “10-8” report is named for the police radio code meaning an officer is in-service, on duty. The association’s report cards after a legislative session will give lawmakers a letter grade of A-F.

The move is a political muscle-flex likely to have a major impact on criminal justice reform and other legislation at the Capitol. Initially, the association has listed three measures it supports and will grade lawmakers on this session: state money to help small departments provide bullet proof vests, $1,220 a year in supplemental pay for officers at accredited departments and revamping the state Board of Standards and Training to give city chiefs a voice equal to county sheriffs and state troopers.

“Come election time, the first thing (politicians) do up on the podium is talk about supporting first responders — law enforcement, fire and others,” said John Neal, Ridgeland Police chief and president of MACP. “This isn’t meant to bring shame to any of the legislators, but we want the people of Mississippi to be able to look at this, and when they say they support law enforcement, they can see whether or not they’re supporting us on issues we feel are important.”

Neal said the association will add other bills or issues to its list it will use for lawmaker grades as they come up, and that lawmakers will be well-informed upfront that they’ll be graded on those measures.

As lawmakers grapple again this year with criminal justice reform — trying to find ways to address Mississippi’s prison crisis of overcrowding, violence and inhumane conditions — MACP and other law enforcement interests are expected to have a large say in what’s proposed and passed.

Lawmakers passed sweeping reform last year, including loosened parole eligibility and sentencing, but Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed it largely because of opposition and concern from law enforcement leaders that it was too “criminal-friendly.”

But the state faces multiple lawsuits and threats of federal action — and a potential mandated hit to taxpayers — if it doesn’t address its prison crisis.

“We know that corrections is stretched thin,” Neal said. “But the minimum sentence times of 25% for nonviolent, 50% for violent offenses — we supported the language in the governor’s veto that it went too far. We know things need to be done differently … I know you can’t just lock people up and throw away the key forever, but truth in sentencing needs to hold firm. There’s no sense in sentencing someone to 30 years when they are going to really do four-and-a-half years. It needs to be looked at from different angles. Do we have the answer to it? No. But figuring it out needs to be a group discussion.”

Former lawmaker Jarvis Dortch is director of the ACLU of Mississippi, one of numerous groups pushing for reform to reduce the state’s third-highest in the nation prison population. He some lawmakers were shocked last year at 11th-hour opposition from law enforcement to reforms. He said law enforcement has been involved in reform legislation, and he hopes the report cards don’t become “an instrument to block cooperation and create inflexibility.”

“There’s always that possibility, especially with this being a very conservative Legislature with Republican supermajorities, depending on what they use to grade them,” Dortch said. “… Our office used to do a scorecard, but that’s something we’ve pushed back from, to make sure we’re not putting people in a corner.

“We have definitely got to do something with our prison population, or we’ll end up in a situation like Alabama,” Dortch said.

After numerous lawsuits and a Department of Justice investigation, Alabama taxpayers are having to spend an estimated $1 billion on that state’s prison crisis. Mississippi leaders have warned that if the Magnolia State doesn’t start addressing overcrowding and other issues, it could face similar mandates.

Neal said MACP’s report cards will be nonpartisan, and based on policy, not politics.

The 10-8 report is likely to get lawmakers’ attention as a grassroots proxy for hundreds of police chiefs and thousands of police officers.

“I have three police chiefs in my district,” Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson said. “I certainly listen to them and respect their opinion.”

Blount said he supports all three measures in MACP’s initial legislative agenda this year.

MACP is asking lawmakers to provide an initial $250,000 in state reimbursement funds to smaller police departments that can’t afford to provide bullet proof vests — which run about $800 each — to officers. A federal program would cover half the costs, and cities would be reimbursed by the new fund if they front the other half.

Neal said many officers in small departments in Mississippi do without bullet-proof vests, share them between multiple officers or wear worn, out-of-warranty vests that are hand-me-downs from other agencies.

“Those vests have a warranty period of five years for a reason,” Neal said. “Will a seven- or eight-year-old vest stop a bullet? Probably, but who wants to take that chance … Some agencies will have three vests, all expired, but like eight officers sharing them.”

Neal said the proposal would require cities to apply for federal funds for vests, then pay the other half match, and apply for reimbursement from the state. He said larger agencies and cities can typically afford to outfit officers with vests.

The supplemental pay proposal, Neal said, would provide $1,200 a year to officers serving in accredited departments and cost the state about $4 million a year. He said there are 29 agencies that have gone through state or national training accreditation, and that the pay stipend would help encourage more to do so.

Neal said Mississippi police are generally low-paid. He said some larger agencies start officers pay as high as $40,000 to $45,000 a year, but many pay far less and “we’ve got some smaller agencies out there — God bless them — paying about $9 an hour.” Neal said Louisiana in recent years started a supplemental state pay program of $2,400 a year.

Neal said MACP is also pushing to change the makeup of the state Board of Standards and Training for law enforcement to allow MACP to have a seat. He said sheriffs, highway patrol, campus police and other associations have representatives on the board, but not the president of MACP, although he said his association represents the largest number of law enforcement officers in the state by far.

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Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.