Residents packed the boardroom of the City of Wiggins Board of Aldermen for last Tuesday's meeting in order to complain about what they called harassment at the hands of Wiggins Police Department officers.
Rev. Leonard Galloway, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, said he felt trouble was brewing but could be avoided if a different approach to treating people were tried.
"The way the police officers have been conducting themselves and treating people, particularly women; there is going to be havoc if something isn't done," he said. They need to know how to treat people.
"Once they pull people over, they need to treat them, at least, as somebody."
Ward 1 Alderman Darrell Berry said he was familiar with the situation and had taken steps to address it.
""I've heard these complaints myself and I've talked to the chief and I think he's going to be getting out more at night and observing," he said.
Galloway spoke of getting pulled over, more than a year ago, and being asked repeatedly how much he had to drink, even after telling the officer he did not drink and was coming from a church function.
"It was almost as if (the officer) was trying to goad me into an angry response," he said.
Resident Sheila Davis spoke of being stopped and questioned while on her way to her niece's home.
"The officer actually said, 'Let me follow you to your niece's house and make sure you go inside,' and, oh my God, I'm a grown woman and do not need the police to make sure I go where I say I'm going," she said.
Several people in attendance said Wiggins had earned a reputation as a place to avoid.
"The City of Wiggins police have that reputation from Kentucky to the coast," said an unidentified member of the audience.
Mayor Jerry Alexander and Alderman-at-Large Joel Miles said they had been unaware of the problem but would make sure Police Chief Matt Barnett addressed any disrespect toward citizens with training and, if necessary, discipline.
Barnett said he maintained an open door policy and was willing to meet with any citizen expressing concern about his officers and the manner in which they interacted with the public.
"This is the first I've heard these complaints and I would ask anybody having a complaint contact my office and meet with me," he said.
Barnett's department has been recognized by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for lowering violent crime rates in the city and residents have expressed increased confidence in their safety while going to public areas such as Blaylock Park and Reynolds Field Sports Complex.
Late last week, Barnett said his department was taking art in communication training conducted by another law-enforcement agency.
"They are training in using courteous language while dealing with people and deescalating situations no matter what they may be," he said. "We've got a job to do, but we evidently have a problem with some officers communicating the reasons for a traffic stop."
Galloway stressed the fact he did not want law enforcement curtailed, but rather a more respectful approach to dealing with the public.
"I have no problem with people who break the law going to jail," he said. "Everybody, though, does not commit crime.
"The police have a dangerous job and I recognize that fact but they need to treat people like people."
Rev. Tim Monroe of New Welcome Hill Baptist Church spoke of getting pulled over and of a young man stopped while walking in the early morning and said a new approach to communication had to be taken.
"I can go on and on," he said. "We want to stop it before something bad happens and something bad is going to happen."
Barnett said his department would balance the needs of enforcing the law with a proper approach to communicating with the public at large.
"We are not going back to the Simon City Royals roaming the park, businesses being broke into and dope dealers selling dope on the street corners," he said. "We're going to show the citizens of this community the proper respect but we will uphold the law."
In response to the complaints, Barnett has assigned two investigators, a former narcotics officer and a patrol sergeant, all experienced officers, to supervise and observe WPD field operations.