A dozen days after five Rankin County deputies known as the “Goon Squad” tortured, tased and sexually abused two Black men, the Rankin County Board of Supervisors gave Sheriff Bryan Bailey a $21,059 raise.
On Feb. 6, supervisors officially appointed him director of the Safe Room, a task he has carried out for years.
This means Bailey, a Republican incumbent unopposed in the Nov. 7 election, now earns $140,059 — what appears to be the highest pay for a Mississippi sheriff. It’s far more than the $122,160 salary Gov. Tate Reeves collects.
State Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, said she believes the bonus circumvented the will of the state Legislature, which capped sheriffs’ salaries in counties of more than 100,000 population at $119,000. “We had just given sheriffs a big raise,” she said. “It’s just not right.”
The state’s legislative watchdog told her the raise was legal, but she said she still thinks the act “takes advantage of the taxpayers. I’m shocked the board of supervisors went along with it.”
Greta Kemp Martin, the Democratic candidate for Mississippi attorney general, said Sheriff Bailey has “proven himself to be unfit for the job” and should resign.
In addition to the Goon Squad’s actions, she pointed to reporting by The New York Times and Mississippi Today, which revealed the sheriff repeatedly used grand jury subpoenas to gather the text messages and phone call logs of his married girlfriend and a man he suspected she was seeing.
Before giving Bailey the raise, Rankin County supervisors sought an attorney general’s opinion, wanting to know if the sheriff could also be paid “for overseeing the FEMA safe room,” another name for the county’s severe weather shelter.
What Rankin County officials didn’t mention to the attorney general’s office was that the sheriff had been in charge of the Safe Room for years.
The 16,400-square-foot facility hosts far more events and parties than storm evacuations. Most of the Rankin County policies for the Safe Room, built at a cost of $2.8 million to taxpayers, center on how groups can use the room for events ($50 an hour, plus a $250 deposit).
“Event themes must be approved by the Rankin County Sheriff and-or his designee and must be consistent with promoting community culture, recreation and education,” the policies read. “The Rankin County Sheriff’s Department accepts cash, checks and purchase orders made payable to Rankin County.”
U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., past chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, noted that the position over the Safe Room is usually held by a county’s emergency management director rather than a sheriff.
Brian Adam serves as emergency management director for Hancock County, which has five shelters. When those shelters open to the public, the Red Cross operates them, he said.
He doesn’t know of any sheriffs who manage shelters.
Asked why the Rankin County sheriff was getting paid now for a task he had done for years, Craig Slay, an attorney for the supervisors, responded that Bailey undertook that responsibility “voluntarily” and it “does not fall within his duties as Sheriff.”
While Bailey’s pay has skyrocketed, the number of employees at the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department is falling.
Current and former deputies say morale is plummeting, and more than two dozen people have left the office in recent months. They say they feel they lack the support of the sheriff, who said from now on, he had to “verify” their work.
After Rankin County Undersheriff Paul Holley resigned Oct. 2, Bailey sent out an email asking those in the office to “be patient during this transition. I have always tried to be a good leader but have my shortcomings. …
“I want to recover all that has been taken from us, especially our name and reputation. I cannot do it alone. I need our team to do it. If we all do our part and do our job, we can regain what was stolen from us.”
Weeks after five deputies and a Richland police officer pleaded guilty to torturing two Black men and planting a gun and drugs on them, citizens from the community appeared before the county supervisors.
“Those who are supposed to protect and serve have been serving out a brand of justice that is outside the boundaries of human dignity and decency,” resident Joe Brazeal told supervisors. “How long do you really think this has really been going on in our county?”
Someone in the audience answered, “Decades.”
Brazeal called for an investigation “going back as far back and as long ago as these officers who were carrying a badge.”
He asked the supervisors, “How many are incarcerated now or have been banished from this county because of planted evidence? This is your responsibility. Some of you were on watch.”
Supervisor Steve Gaines responded that the deputies’ crimes surprised him. “I’m sorry this happened,” he said. “I believe the sheriff is sorry this happened. Let’s respect our law enforcement and not let a few bad apples ruin everything.”
In response to those calling for Bailey’s resignation, Slay told the crowd that when people called on supervisors to remove the sheriff, those calls should go to the governor.
Mississippi law gives the governor the power to remove a county elected official if he or she receives a petition of 30 percent or more of the qualified voters.
“This board does not have the power to remove any county elected official,” Slay told the audience.
Bailey, first elected a dozen years ago, has rejected calls to resign. At a press conference following the officers’ guilty pleas, he denied having any prior knowledge of the deputies’ actions or even the existence of the Goon Squad, despite the fact that challenge coins for the Goon Squad were stamped with the seal of the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department.
He blamed his deputies for lying to him. “The only thing I’m guilty of is trusting grown men that swore an oath to do their job correctly,” he said. “I’m guilty of that.”
Instead, he blamed others at his office. “The complaint has to come in,” he said. “The reports have to come in. Something has to come in that I’ve been notified. That’s what I’ve got supervisors for.”
In response to questions about the crimes carried out by his deputies, the sheriff told reporters, “The system works.”
He said investigators for the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation “came in. They saw the red flags. Today, we have five former deputies in jail because they [MBI] came in and did their job.”
Greta Kemp Martin, whose father serves as police chief for the town of Tishomingo, said if Bailey had taken full responsibility for what happened, she might feel differently.
“Kicking the can to his supervisors is cowardly,” she said. “This was more than roughing up someone. This was torture.”
Martin, whose grandfathers also worked in law enforcement, said what the Goon Squad did “puts good cops at risk, because it deflates the public trust.”
Ilyssa Daly examines the power of sheriffs’ offices in Mississippi as part of The Times’s Local Investigations Fellowship. Jerry Mitchell, co-founder of the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting that’s now part of Mississippi Today, is an investigative reporter who has examined civil rights-era cold murder cases in the state for more than 30 years.