‘Everybody Matters, Or Nobody Matters’: The JFP Interview with Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

‘Everybody Matters, Or Nobody Matters’: The JFP Interview with Public Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher

Department of Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher says focusing on treatment for those addicted to drugs as well as those who suffer from mental illness may bring  upfront costs, but will likely pay off in the long run for Mississippi and its residents.

Department of Safety Commissioner Marshall Fisher says focusing on treatment for those addicted to drugs as well as those who suffer from mental illness may bring upfront costs, but will likely pay off in the long run for Mississippi and its residents. Photo by Imani Khayyam.

To say Marshall Fisher is a career law-enforcement, or as he would say "narc," official is an understatement. The U.S. Navy veteran has seen it all while working for the federal and state governments in primarily drug enforcement during his decades-long career. He has also pivoted on some issues, like addiction, creating an impetus to change how law-enforcement agencies work alongside other professionals, such as mental-health and rehabilitation specialists, instead of operating in a silo.

Commissioner Fisher took the helm at the Department of Public Safety in January after leading the Mississippi Department of Corrections for a year. His work in law enforcement has predominantly centered around drug enforcement; he worked for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration from 1983 until transitioning to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics in 2005.

Fisher shared his opinions and ideas about how law enforcement fits into society and government as a whole with the Jackson Free Press recently.

Are drug courts and mental-health courts working? What else can the State look at to help with those problems?

When I first heard about drug courts, and I couldn't tell you exactly when they started ... I would say late '90s, I thought it was some hug-a-thug do-gooder program, and I believed that.

You've got to remember my enforcement background: I spent from 1983 until 2014 ... in narcotics, so that entails making cases on drug dealers and organizations in order to dismantle the organization and seize drugs, seize drug assets derived from profits of narcotic sales, and make cases on them and put people in prison. So strictly enforcement; there was no treatment piece for DEA, and I don't believe DEA today should be in the treatment business. They're not treatment professionals.

Over time we began to see the results of drug courts, and it was after I was here in Mississippi ( at the Bureau of Narcotics) ... and I was beginning to know district attorneys in the state ... who I had gained a great deal of respect for (supporting) drug courts, and I sat down with them. Basically they turned my head to actually look at the results and some of the numbers. It's not perfect—nothing's perfect—but what the drug courts are doing, I think, is a really positive step. They have some good success numbers and I don't think you can argue with that—the numbers don't lie, and I don't think they've been manipulated.

I was at the opioid town-hall meeting in Jones County last night and ... I had a man come out and shake my hand and the Bureau of Narcotics director's hand and say, "Thank y'all for what you're doing. I appreciate it." He said his wife was an active addict, and he had been in recovery for 10 years and slipped out and was back in recovery, and drug court got him there.

So that was a success story out of someone's mouth that you know; here's a guy who's obviously been arrested but who came up to two veteran law-enforcement officers and shook their hands, so I think that's a positive step.

Are there negatives to drug courts?

Now what I've seen happen with drug courts that I don't like ... there are some areas where a guy or gal might be arrested for distribution of narcotics—and not for just a little bit—and for some reason because of who they were, who their families were, whatever, they were shepherded into drug court. It's not for drug dealers; it's for drug abusers. That is a significant difference.

I'm one of those that didn't believe addiction was a disease for a long time. I thought it was a choice somebody made, and all of us make bad choices, but I thought these are people that are too sorry to improve; they don't want to improve; they don't want to get better, and they made a choice—and that's not a choice.

Science has shown that's not true, and I regret that I ever believed that way or thought that way, but I didn't know any better. I still educate some of my colleagues. I talked to a young officer in the gym this week about it; he was saying, "I'm just on the fence." And I said, "Just think about it in these terms: Why would somebody wake up one day and decide to ruin their whole life and the lives of everyone that they loved around them? It doesn't make sense; it's insanity." If you talk to somebody who's been in addiction, they'll tell you it is insanity.

How do we, as a state, focus on combatting addiction?

These are my opinions, but I believe we would do ourselves a service whether it's the state or nationwide to focus more on treatment. And I want to be clear: I'm not some guy who's turned his back on his profession; I am about as hardcore as they come. There are people who are behind bars who belong behind bars because they have done evil things, and they are there to protect the public from the harm that they may do to them and (that) they have done to other people in some cases.

I believe if we would take true first offenders ... who have either a co-occurring mental-health or drug abuse disorders and create—and this comes with a cost—more therapeutic settings with trained, licensed, credentialed professionals (it would pay off). Now, they've got to cross the bridge, but in order to get into recovery, you've got to get the fog out of their head. ... Whether it be mental-health or drug treatment, the cost benefit on the other side of that would be astounding. It would be some up-front cost to get it going, but I think the return on investment on the other end would be good.

What is the DPS doing to help with combatting addiction, particularly in overdose situations?

The troopers, MBN and MBI (Mississippi Bureau of Investigation) agents are now carrying NARCAN (naloxone) as a result of a state-targeted response grant for opioids that the Department of Mental Health wrote. A portion of that went to naloxone for officers, and I've had people ask, "Well, highway-patrol officers, they probably wouldn't come across a lot of drug addicts." Well probably not ... but the truth is, we've also had officers who have been exposed to things like fentanyl and carfentanyl, which are really deadly. I would tell the guys: "If you're not carrying it thinking about saving the life of somebody who is an addict, think about saving your life or the life of a partner."

The other reason I (pushed for NARCAN) was to try to get the message out that, as commissioner of public safety, I think this is important because it's a public-safety issue. It's a public-health issue.

About a month ago, I was up in Southaven at a town-hall meeting, and the sheriff up there is Bill Rasco, who is solid as a rock. His deputies had been carrying naloxone for six months at that time, and they've saved five peoples' lives.

To those that would argue why are we wasting our money and our funding on saving those lives, I don't think we get to make that choice. Police officers get in pursuit of people all the time: criminals, sometimes people trying to avoid getting a ticket and for whatever reason they run off the road into a pond or a creek, and what happens next? That same officer who was chasing them takes off his gun belt and bails off out there and tries to rescue them—it's no different.

We don't get to pick and choose who we're going to rescue, and who's to say that some 21-year-old young man or woman that gets revived doesn't get their act together and winds up being the person who finds the cure for cancer?

Youth is one of our big focuses, and we've had lots of recent examples in Jackson of kids and teenagers charged with violent crimes and adult offenses. Where does our kids-tried-as-adults laws stand compared to other states? Are other states doing things differently when it comes to those teenagers?

Just off the top of my head, I don't think Mississippi is behind the times on that. I think every community in the country is dealing with youth crime. Some of them may be prosecuted differently or have different statutes on the books for prosecution. When I left the Department of Corrections, there was somewhere between 25 to 40 youthful offenders in the youthful-offender unit, who had been convicted as adults under that statute, and all of those that I was aware of were heinous crimes.

I can't think of anything that we could do differently except from the top-down. Every district, every district attorney, the judges—and I'm not telling the DAs or the judges what to do—but you've got to hold people accountable. If there's no accountability, if there's no prosecution, if there's no respect for the law, then there's no respect.

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DPS Commissioner Marshall Fisher speaks at one of the several town hall meetings his agency and several other state boards and departments are hosting to educate the public about the opioid epidemic. He now believes in investing in prevention, but didn’t in the past, he says. Photo courtesy Mandy Davis, Department of Public Safety

I'm not saying we need to have a policeman on every street corner like a hall monitor, but you have to have the respect of your community, and I think you have to earn that, too.

I think there's far too much media attention to the negative side of law enforcement. I'm not telling you that everyone who wears the badge, uniform and gun is a perfect, wonderful person. They're not, but neither is everyone who graduated from dental school. We (at DPS) police our own, and we take it very seriously. I tell my officers that work for me that if we get a complaint on you, we're going to investigate it even if we think it's a bunch of malarkey because if we don't, it lends credence to people's suspicions that we're covering something up. And even if I don't believe it, I have to do a paper trail to say we looked into this complaint. More times than not, we disprove the allegation; it's unfounded. But we look at it.

I had a fellow prosecutor tell me several years ago when I was a young federal narcotic agent that we have a lot of power in this business. Sometimes it doesn't seem like it because we'll lose a case or lose charges on an offender, but most of the time, we blame it on the system. But most of the time it may be that we didn't do our job as good as we could have done it—not every time—but some of that comes from experience, but what's that old saying? Rather, 100 men go free who are guilty than one man go to prison who's not guilty. It's up to us to exercise that power and that authority properly. If not, we are no better than the bad guys that we're after, and I believe that.

How should a community come together to address youth crime?

I've never run a municipal police department ... so I don't want to come across like I'm trying to tell (JPD Chief) Lee Vance or somebody how to run his police department. But rubbing shoulders with these guys—I'm active with the International Association of Chiefs of Police—and ... talking to those people and what they've conveyed to me is that it's a top-down approach. You've got to get to know the people in the community; you want your officers having dialogue with people in the community.

You want to develop officers who are approachable and that people aren't afraid of. I always like it when I see photos of officers stopping and shooting a few baskets with some guys on the street or buying popsicles for kids. One of the ways you earn people's respect is you talk to them, and you get to know the people in the community, but anything you want to do starts at the top. It's leadership, you know, pushed down. And you can't just say it—you've got to show it.

Chris Freeze is a perfect example. He's the FBI special agent in charge of Mississippi, and he drove down to Jones County last night with one of his ASACs (assistant special agents in charge) to sit through a town-hall meeting on the opioid crisis. We've got our MBN director up there telling them that we're not trying to create an avenue to arrest more people.

We cannot arrest our way out of this (opioid drug abuse) problem—it's impossible, we don't have enough cells to put people in, and we don't believe that putting somebody in jail who's an addict is going to fix that. It's like painting your house when it's on fire. Now that doesn't mean that people that are addicted don't commit heinous crimes and wind up in jail. ... But I think that it sends a message that we've done seven of these (town halls) now. ... I went down there because I think it's important that the commissioner of public safety show up there because it sends a message that this is an important issue; it is an epidemic; people are dying.

Michael Connelly, who was a police beat reporter in LA, (writes) fictional novels. He's got one character in a series he's written called Harry Bosch. He's an LA (homicide) detective. I know this because I've been reading them for over 20 years. In one of the books ... he (Bosch) is talking to somebody who says, "Why are you working on this murder, basically just some low-level somebody who got killed, just as hard as you would work on it if the mayor's son?"

And (Bosch) said, "Everybody matters, or nobody matters," and I've adopted that, and I believe that. It just struck me. It's kind of like the scene in "To Kill a Mockingbird" where Gregory Peck's character is walking out of the courtroom, and the old black gentleman in the balcony tells the kid, "Stand up, your father is passing." It's just one of those things that sticks with you, and I believe that: Everybody matters, or nobody matters.

When we had little Kingston Frazier murdered out here, my MBI agents worked (the case) that shook every one of us to our core. My colonel couldn't sleep for four nights in a row, and so I'm telling you cops have hearts, too. .... Those were youthful offenders involved in that; one was 19, and the other two were 17.

For the life of me, I can't see how somebody gets to that (point) where they're that young, and they get that much ... whatever is going on in their head. I can see it if they're 19 years old, and they're in the rice fields of Vietnam, or they're in Afghanistan and seeing their buddies blown up, and they develop issues like PTSD and what have you, but again, it's accountability.

We like to say it starts in the home; schools can't fix it, and that's the truth. It does start in the home. If your role model is somebody with a 9mm stuck in his jeans and a roll full of hundreds and a hot car and a good-looking girlfriend—if that's your role model, that's what you're going to be. And I wish I knew how we could fix that, but I do believe that some of it starts with accountability.

I know it starts on the street level, getting respect for authority. You respect authority in high school, and if you don't, there's a penalty to pay: you get suspended or ... go sit in detention, or you go to alternative school or something like that. Again, it's got to be accountability, but I think some that might have started with everyone on the team gets a trophy. That means nothing. I am sure there are people who will argue with that.

How did we get to this point with the opioid crisis, and what is Mississippi doing to combat the epidemic?

We've got a nationwide drug problem. The opioid problem has been brought on by drug companies. Pharmaceutical companies, 20-odd years ago, began to tell doctors that these synthetic opioids could be used in the same manner that Tylenol and Advil are used for pain and that the pain would negate any chance of addiction. We had a physician stand up last night (at the town hall) and tell us that "20 years ago we were led down a primrose path."

We had over-prescribing by doctors, most of them I believe were not doing it out of any malice. They were trying to treat their patients' pain. Part of it from the pharmaceutical industry was about profit, pure and simple. To me that profit is no different than the profit (drug lord) Pablo Escobar made—it's no different because people are dying from it.

If you look at the stats today, we've got pharmaceutical marketing practices, saying (if) you buy this stuff, it's good stuff, it's OK, (and) it's not going to be any side effects. They can deny it all they want to, but that's on record, and they didn't do any research to support that. Then you've got doctors who bought into it again, that spend years being educated, and they're some of the smartest the world has to offer, and they're trying to do what the physicians do taking the Hippocratic Oath. Then you've got people addicted to pills, so enforcement picks up.

They develop(ed) prescription monitoring programs where they can tell how many pharmacies and doctors you've been to in 12 to 15 months, so exposure to law enforcement becomes a possibility. In order to avoid that, you go to heroin, which is an opiate in the purest form, and the only difference is, it doesn't kill any less people—there's just no quality control coming out of whatever heroin lab whether it was made in a bathtub or a blender. So now, you've got people scoring heroin on the street because it's cheaper to get.

With no quality control, you don't know whether you're getting 3 percent heroin or 80 percent heroin, and you don't know if it's laced with fentanyl. And if it's laced with fentanyl, the addicts hitting themselves with a needle in some cases it's so sudden, so fast, they don't even have time to get the needle out of the arm by the time their heart stops beating. So we're in a situation where we've got more people now dying from drug overdoses than we do from gunshot wounds and, in some cases, traffic accidents.

What are differences between the previous "War on Drugs" approach to crack and the opioid epidemic we're facing now?

You'll have some dealers who are addicted, lower-level dealers who are addicted, supporting their habit. I worked in DEA for a long time, and all of us back in those days had to do some undercover and all of that. Some of those major players don't touch dope, they don't even drink. They're businessmen and run it like (a business).

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Gov. Phil Bryant (left) appointed Marshall Fisher (center) to lead the Department of Public Safety in January 2017. Photo courtesy Department of Public Safety

I was around when crack-cocaine started showing up. (It was) a knee-jerk reaction, and I'm not criticizing who made it, but at the time the reaction (was counter-productive). Community leaders from those communities where crack-cocaine was ravishing families were coming to the government saying, 'We need your help, we're losing a generation of young people here.' So (the government said,) here's the fix: We're going to pass a law, and if you sell crack cocaine and you got that much crack cocaine, you're going to go to jail for a minimum amount of jail for this time. But if you got this much powder cocaine of the same amount ..., the penalties for crack cocaine are stiffer than the penalties for powder cocaine.

Of course, the crack cocaine was ravishing the African American communities in this country. ... It was 20-something years later before it got corrected, and those same community leaders are coming forward now saying, 'Wait a minute, you're targeting a generation, we're losing a generation going to jail now.' I don't want to take anything away from the DEA; drug-law enforcement is the most important domestic law-enforcement mission outside of anti-terrorism in this country. ... We are in the early throes of (opioid crisis) right now, but ... the sleeping giant has woke up and realized we have a problem. So now we've got a president who's established an opioid task force ... he's declared it a crisis, a national problem, and it is a national problem. With that, as usual, there will be funding behind that, we hope.

We think the number of overdose deaths are seriously underreported (there are 125 reported so far), so we're dealing with it here. We had a governor who had the foresight to put together a task force, and I'm not saying that because he's my boss. He genuinely cares about what he's doing. He takes it to heart. ... We're doing these town-hall meetings. You've got law enforcement and mental-health and treatment professionals working with (medical) boards because we cannot arrest our way out of it, and we realize it's not just a law-enforcement problem, it's a public-health issue.

The purpose is to educate people about what the problem is and to give them an idea of the resources in their communities. Part of that is to get a groundswell of support from the community to show them we care about the problem. Now it's up to them to go to their legislators and community leaders and say we need some help. We've got to take the stigma away from addiction. You know, people want to hide and say, "My little girl had a heart attack," (or), "Well, Aunt May passed away in her sleep." Nobody wants to be embarrassed to have somebody think they've got a drug addicts in their family. I understand that, and I can't blame them for that , but that's part of the stigma (why) people will not go get treatment.

Talk about mental health.

The mental-health issue is another one, there's a stigma with that. It's my opinion again—addiction, the disease of addiction, mental-health diseases should be treated no differently than diabetes or cancer, whether it comes to the insurance (or treatment).

Let me give you to me some stunning numbers that are sobering to me. When I left Corrections at the end of January, we had roughly 19,000 people incarcerated ,including in work centers. Out of those 19,000 (inmates), 14,479 self-reported during classification abusing drugs, alcohol or both. This is in January, so the numbers (have) changed. But (at that time) there were 3,250 incarcerated people that had a mental-health diagnosis. Other than the 47 (inmates) on death row and the 2,260 doing life without parole, everybody else (is) coming back out.

They're going to be in your neighborhoods, and MDOC has no choice if somebody flat times out. If they're a schizophrenic, they get about 30 days' worth of medication and are shown the door. Right, wrong or indifferent, you can't keep someone incarcerated unless they are court-ordered incarcerated. These are some of the people we see walking down the streets talking to themselves, and there's no way, no how, that they're not going to go back into the system at some point in time.

You've got to hope that they'll take their medicine, but that's another reason for DOC and law enforcement to establish strong, working relationships with treatment and mental-healthcare professionals.

There's a couple of pilot programs going on in Corrections right now where they're working in concert with mental health professionals and parole officers who are working with these people who are identified prior to discharge with mental-health and substance-abuse disorders. ... I think that's pretty progressive because the attempt is to try to keep these people from recidivating, and I think that's a noble effort.

Again, there are people saying, 'what are we doing wasting our taxpayers' money on this?' Well, would you rather turn them into taxpaying citizens rather than tax burdens? I mean, that's the way I look at it. Somebody who's addicted (can) get into recovery while they're in an institution and get some training and a job skill when they come out. All that is going to affect their family and their extended family if they can go support them. If they've got to come out and owe $5,000 in child support and are addicted and still not in recovery, what are their chances? And I know people make bad choices, but nobody chooses to wake up one morning and decides to turn (their) life into insanity. Who does that? Nobody in a right mind does that.

Talk about the push to widen the gang definition in the upcoming legislative session.

That's something we're looking at with respect to gangs. I will say this: We do have gang issues here in Mississippi. There's gang issues in Tennessee and Louisiana (too) ,... so we're not different from those. And they (gangs) are into drug trafficking, prostitution, wherever an easy buck is to be made. The only difference between them (gang members) and law enforcement is that we have this thing called the Constitution, with search and seizure stuff.

...There's been some conversation about some of the gang-bangers being just wannabes, "They're not really gangbangers." But if you look at the culture of gangs ... you have to be a wannabe before you can become a gang member. And they're out to prove themselves sometimes, and you've got to prove yourself to get in the gang. One of our presidents referred to ISIS as the Junior Varsity. I don't think they're the JV, and these wannabes aren't the JV. To me I don't see any difference between a gang member with a 9mm and a wannabe with a 9mm whose intent is to do somebody harm.

What gangs here are active or a big problem?

Gangster Disciples, Vice Lords; we've had an Aryan brotherhood presence, Simon City Royals—those are just off the top of my head. But if you talk to any street-level unit, where there's an FBI task-force unit or talk to DEA street units or MBN agents, they would tell you, we've got gangs. I don't want to get into an argument with somebody who says we don't have a gang problem ... (what is) important to me as a career law enforcement officer, that I see from where I sit, is that cooperation between state, local and federal agencies—and it's huge.

Are the main problems with gangs in this state drug-related?

I would say yes, with respect to the gangs.

What is your focus as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety?

We've got a crime lab, which is a major spoke in the wheel for law enforcement for the whole state. It's important that they be properly funded and properly staffed because every crime, whether it be a sex crime, a burglary where prints are taken off a burglary scene, homicide, autopsies of suspicious deaths all go through there. One of the things that's very important to me is that the crime lab is properly funded and properly staffed, and we are seriously understaffed when it comes to medical examiners.

We have three medical examiners: a chief and two below (him). There's something called the American Association of Medical Examiners, and they have a standard recommendation for the number of autopsies that should be performed by a medical examiner in a year's time.

They recommend no more than 250 (per examiner, per year). Three of them did 1,500 last calendar year. You do the math. (Editor's note: It equals 500 autopsies per examiner, more than double the recommended annual number).

How's the new trooper school, which the Legislature funded this spring, going?

We're in the throes of getting ready for that academy, but it's not like we can just have them show up. There's a process: an application, a physical fitness test, a physical, a background investigation, a polygraph. We've got roughly 300 right now; it's been narrowed down from about roughly 2,500 to 2,600 applicants. They are going through the background and polygraph process as we speak, and we're hoping to get 60 troopers on the road.

We've been funded for 60; I'd like to have 160. We'll start the academy Oct. 29, and it's a 19-week academy, so you're talking about basically by the end of February. Then they've got to ride with a field training officer for a period of time, so we're looking at about May of next year before we actually turn them loose.

(Editor's note: there are 466 total troopers at DPS, but that's 184 troopers shy of the statutory limit of 650).

We actually need a patrol school for the next two following years just to get even and maybe the next three years, and it costs about $7.3 million for patrol school (for 60 troopers).

This interview has been edited for clarity, length and understanding. Email state reporter Arielle Dreher at arielle@jacksonfreepress.com. Also visit jfp.ms/preventingviolence.

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