A New Sheriff? JFP Interview with Lester Williams | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

A New Sheriff? JFP Interview with Lester Williams

What's your law enforcement experience?
In 1990 I transferred over to the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics. There I was primarily assigned to the DEA and the FBI on their task force, working in major investigations. During that time at the MBN I served as Commander of the Capital City Metro Narcotics Unit. That was between 1990 to 2004. I started out at the MBN working the motel/hotel and airport drug interdictions, but because of the quantities of drugs we were seizing and the currency, it often led into other major investigations, which resulted in me being assigned to the DEA or FBI task force for much of that time.

Have you resigned from the city while you're campaigning?
May 31 was my last day.

You were in code enforcement, right?

Tell me what you plan to do with the sheriff's office?
I plan to develop a true working relationship with local law enforcement agencies. I name, in my platform, the Jackson Police Department, because I know that how Jackson goes, so goes the rest of Hinds County and the metro Jackson area. I intend to work more effectively with drug-related crimes. I think that I'm uniquely qualified to deal with that problem because of my 14 years of concentrated, diverse, narcotics experience that I've gained while working up through street level investigations to major investigations encompassing money laundering and other things connected to narcotics activity.

Have you ever tried taking your talent to the sheriff's department?
It's not my desire to work up under this administration. I never found the sheriff was a person that could be worked with, observing him from afar and the way he has dealt with law enforcement agencies, particularly the agency I was working with, that being the MBN.

There was a strained relationship between the sheriff's department and MBN.
Speaking from my direct knowledge, even though an agency is a member of a task force doesn't mean that you have a true working relationship. When you can't get the needed reports you get from the agency that is required to be turned in. I found that to be so while I was a commander at the MBN.

What was the reason for the sheriff holding out on information to MBN?
What I've learned about local law enforcement is that everybody wants to keep their information theirs, and because of that we're not effective at doing narcotics investigations and law enforcement in general. I'm speaking from personal knowledge. This is something that I know to be true.

It's not isolated to the Hinds County sheriff's department. The personal drive to get re-elected means more than moving ahead law enforcement. It's about who's in charge and who's going to get the glory from it. It's territorial. People want to be the person in charge, and a lot of times we suffer because of that.

You're pretty sure the sheriff's office is privy to information that MBN and other agencies could use in their own investigations?
I'm speaking directly from my own experience with them. I'm not going to attempt to allege that someone has told me about any recent events, but I find it hard to believe that within the last 15 years that all of the sudden (McMillin's) got this vision from the Lord that he's going to do it differently.

How people perform comes from the top down; the supervision from the top manifests on down the ranks. If his supervisors would not share this information it was only because it was not allowed to be done from the top. I know investigations were conducted with MBN. It was conducted with federal grant money and done under the supervision of the MBN. These case reports were never submitted to the MBN so that they could make proper use of the information that was gathered.

Did the MBN ask for it?
I personally asked for that information. As commander of the Jackson District Office, it was something incumbent on me to do.

Did they offer any grounds for the refusal?
I can't recall the specific reason, and I don't want to misstate, but I know on a number of occasions these reports were requested and the reports, to the best of my knowledge, were never delivered to our office as it was required to be.

What's the name of the federal grant program funding the sheriff's office investigation?
It was done under the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program. This is one of those counties designated for HIDTA funds.

What year did you make the request and got turned down?
This would've been in 2004. I can't give you the exact date.

Being in the sheriff's department also means dealing with supervisors. Are you ready to deal with the natural tug-of-war between those who hold the purse strings and he who wants the purse?
I plan not to deal so much in the media but deal with them one-on-one to express what my needs are. I feel a lot more can be accomplished behind the scenes without making a public spectacle and embarrassing everyone.

No more painting the high milage on the back of county patrol cars?
The milage doesn't have to reflect the actual condition of his vehicles. McMillin can distort information to get what he wants. (Supervisor) Doug Anderson was saying as much when McMillin was saying the moving of the prisoners would cost more than a million dollars when the actual math showed it would cost about half that.

You mean when McMillin was talking about moving state prisoners out of the county jail?
That's correct. When they had that big controversy. McMillin is not always candid when he puts information out there, so you can't always believe that his information reflects the truth.

But do you expect battles with supervisors? Recall Anderson's priority on building a garage rather than investing in the sheriff's department? It only seems natural that some squabbling will result.
I'm willing to do everything in my power to work with the supervisors. I'm going to let them know what my priorities are and what the needs are of law enforcement. They hold the money, and they're accountable to allocating it, but I will make it known what my needs are to successfully run that department and it's going to be incumbent upon them to provide what is needed.

Do you have any plan to reduce overcrowding in the jail or reserve space for the endless tally of detainees?
I'm not a person who will just speak out of the blue on a subject that I know needs much more investigation. Getting information from this closed system down at the sheriff's department is all but impossible. I've requested information from the sheriff's department and they've been unwilling to provide that information. I've asked for simple things like what is the racial make-up of the department and they'll say 'we don't maintain those type of records' but I know the Department of Labor requires those records be kept.

So there's not enough information on the jail to make a comment on it?
Yes. I'm aware that they are building a new penal farm, which will increase the county's ability to house more people. I'm also aware that a regional jail has been approved, which will hold some state inmates—that will reduce the cost of running that facility. All of these things are going to contribute to the relief of the inmate population. There are some maintenance and staffing issues down at the jail that have to be addressed immediately, but I'm not in a position to make that statement. I just don't have the needed information.

It just seems that the kind of improvements you need, such as maintenance issues and staffing issues, come down to paying for them. So you see what you're in for in dealing with the supervisors, right?
There are many other concerns other than the jail or prisoners, but that is a top priority. Crime is at an all time high, and I'm sure the supervisors are aware of what the needs are regarding safety in the county.

How have you dealt with staffing shortages in Code Enforcement?
I'm away from the city at this time, and there's nothing really that I'd like to make to comment on that. Mr. (Joe) Louis is manager of that department. I was the supervisor over the day-to-day operations. I addressed those issues with the mayor and the council. I do understand that the mayor had pledged to add additional staff to that department. We're 15 years or so behind the eight-ball in deterioration of the city. Whatever they give now will not be adequate enough to address the problem in the period of time they want this thing turned around.

How do you plan to address staff shortages outside of demanding more money?
I learned that cooperating with other agencies is paramount to getting things accomplished. I know that a team of mules pulling in separate directions will not get the field plowed. Law enforcement has to work together. I have to make my physical needs known to the supervisors and working with them in coming up with a solution on how to best deal with it, but I can't strong-arm them into doing more than what they have the ability to do.

What other kinds of changes will you bring to the department?
I would establish an intelligence unit in the sheriff's department. I think it's a very essential tool for effective law enforcement in this area. Also, there may be a lot of savings that can be found in the sheriff's department by adjusting the maintenance of the jail or the staffing issues. Perhaps we can do a thorough analysis.

McMillin says that crime in the county is not going up, even though crime in the city is skyrocketing. Perhaps this is a city problem?
The sheriff's responsibility does not stop at the rural parts of the county. Jackson is in his district, so he has a responsibility for it.

You're saying the priority should be on Jackson?
As I stated earlier, how Jackson goes, so goes the rest of the county. If you're not working with Jackson then you can't be effective, and I don't understand how the public is being deceived that you can be effective as a sheriff when you don't consider the city a priority. People say that because he makes a few cocaine and hooker arrests on Hwy 80 that he's doing something, but he's not working in conjunction with the Jackson Police Department. That goes back to that team of mules I was saying. You need a coordinated effort. He's doing what he's doing for political gain and political gain only. I'm saying that I'm going to be a sheriff for the people overall, not for what's best for my personal politics.

JFP Reporters Brian Johnson and Adam Lynch interviewed the candidates in the 2007 election for the Hinds County Sheriff's Office-- current Sheriff Malcolm McMillin, Tyrone Lewis, Lester Williams and Henry Grigsby--for their story, "A New Sheriff In Town?" (July 3, 2007). The transcripts of these interviews are available at jacksonfreepress.com

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