WLOX Investigates: Shortage on Safety - staffing crisis for Moss Point Police

Forty-one percent of the force is missing – unable to patrol, prevent, or investigate crime as there are a dozen vacancies within the department.
Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 8:44 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 19, 2022 at 10:28 PM CDT
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MOSS POINT, Miss. (WLOX) - A crisis in policing right now in Moss Point and it’s been that way for several months, but good news Tuesday night as the police department makes one new hire.

Moss Point’s mayor used the word “crisis” in reference to the department after a series of officer resignations from the city’s police force.

Emails obtained by WLOX put the city’s public safety crisis under a microscope. What we learned through a Freedom of Information request is the mayor, aldermen, and the police chief all know a depleted police officer roster is a threat to the more than 13,000 people who live in the River City. Our investigation reveals the threat starts with who is, and is not, actively patrolling city streets.

A drive through Moss Point paints a seemingly calm and quiet picture, but a problem looms over the horizon. It’s what you don’t see that’s leaving some River City residents uncertain about what the future holds, especially when it comes to their safety.

“I’m lifelong Moss Point, born and raised here, homegrown here and this is the worst I’ve ever seen,” resident Bubba Cunningham said.

What you don’t see is referred to countless times in emails we requested between Moss Point city leaders. You don’t see enough Moss Point police cars patrolling these streets. Dangerous streets, where police say there have been nearly 200 reports of shots fired in just half a year. So dangerous, Moss Point’s mayor hosted an urgent meeting on May 23 due to an “intense concern” about a recent rash of gang shootings. Community leader Bubba Cunningham was invited to that meeting to discuss possible solutions to the problem.

“I’ve heard that some response times are a little bit longer, but they might be on another call because Moss Point doesn’t have the police force,” Cunningham said.

Forty-one percent of the force is missing – unable to patrol, prevent, or investigate crime as there are a dozen vacancies within the department. City leaders place the blame on recent resignations. It’s an issue leaving the city’s police chief concerned with protecting families here, admitting there’s not enough cops to adequately police the area - a problem he can’t solve alone.

“It’s a dangerous community and we’re working to try to resolve that, but I need resources,” Moss Point Police Chief Brandon Ashely said.

If the department was fully staffed, 29 officers would be on the payroll. That’s how many sworn officers were approved through the budget last year. In that scenario, four officers would patrol the streets during each shift.

As we found through emails, Chief Ashley was working to recruit more officers before there was even a need in the department by requesting a budget increase in March to enlarge his staff to 32 officers on the payroll.

As recently as June 7, Moss Point had only 17 officers. Chief Ashley sent an email that day to the mayor and to aldermen - bluntly writing, “At these numbers, it will be difficult to maintain adequate police services for the community.”

The chief talked with WLOX two days after we received the emails we requested.

“I need manpower,” Ashley said. “I need resources to respond to these calls and deter crime. The more officers you see - the more of a deterrence it is.”

It’s a twofold problem - as fewer officers can mean increased wait times for those who are calling in for help.

The police department’s own statistics back that up. We compared May and June response times from 2021 to 2022. In the past two months, the city’s short-staffed department responded to 2,169 calls, taking an average 16 seconds longer to respond than a year ago.

We compared Moss Point’s seven minute and seven second response time to other Jackson County agencies.

Here’s what we learned through June 2022 reports from Gautier, Pascagoula, and Ocean Springs police.

Gautier police responded to 1,048 calls with an average wait time of six minutes and 18 seconds. Officers in Pascagoula worked 3,204 cases in June, arriving in three minutes and 51 seconds. Ocean Springs police responded in four minutes and 56 seconds.

The crux of the problem can be found in an email sent by Chief Ashley on June 8, where he told Moss Point’s mayor that officers currently work an average of 58 calls per day. In a profession where every second matters, the chief noted, “This is not responsive enough for our citizens, nor is it safe for our officers.”

Two weeks earlier, the chief sent a memo to the city’s civil service commission, calling the depleted police officer roster an “emergency” and asking the commission to waive the physical and written tests for new applicants to expedite the hiring process. The commission ultimately denied that request.

So how daunting is this staffing shortage? Remember what Chief Ashley wrote on March 23 outlining his goal to have five sworn officers on every shift patrolling the city.

Although, in a June 17 email to city leaders, the chief admitted his current staffing crisis meant Moss Point had just three officers per shift and one shift with just two full-time officers on patrol. Ashley’s email that day said both the chief and the deputy chief would pick up nightly patrol shifts vacancies can be filled.

“It’s to the point where I’m working a patrol shift as the chief, which you rarely would see that,” Chief Ashley said. “I’m trying to do whatever it takes.”

In June, aldermen approved a pay raise of an extra $2 an hour for certified officers. Mayor Knight told us he’s hoping that pay hike will help keep the officers they have and attract new hires.

“Giving the raise, trying to talk about the step raise in order that we can attract more people to come - I’m doing everything I think we can do,” Moss Point Mayor Billy Knight said.

There are some people applying to put on a Moss Point badge.

A handful of candidates has recently passed the physical and written examinations, but the hiring process could still take a while, and that could mean several more months without more feet on the ground to tackle the crime.

Those pay raises are the long-term solution to the staffing crisis. In the short-term, immediate action is necessary so residents like Bubba Cunningham and his neighbors can feel safer in the Jackson County community they call home.

Documents we received outline some remarkable steps being considered to protect Moss Point until the police force is at full capacity. The emails confirm what we heard in recent days about interlocal conversations and potential partnerships between Moss Point and its law enforcement neighbors.

Let’s dig a little deeper into one of the emails catching our attention. Mayor Knight asked the Moss Point police chief for a list of five to ten cities around Mississippi the size of Moss Point. The mayor wanted to know how many certified officers those cities employ. Remember - Moss Point’s current budget allows the department to hire 29 sworn officers.

The chief listed two Jackson County cities in his answer. He noted Gautier has 40 officers, and Ocean Springs has 42. Here’s what stood out - the chief also noted eight comparable cities in our state that all had more certified officers than Moss Point.

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