Shoplifting arrest leads to deep divide among leaders of small Mississippi town. Police tactics questioned.

Published 3:12 pm Wednesday, April 12, 2023

A shoplifting arrest and the tactics used by police have led to deep divisions among leaders of a small Mississippi town.

The arrest of a Courtland woman on shoplifting charges last month has led to the division in Batesville City Hall, with the town’s five aldermen backing the town police chief and the actions of arresting officers and the mayor voicing opposition to their stance.

Joining Mayor Hal Ferrell in a call for review of the police’s actions during the incident, and dialog about protocol and procedure, is a group of local pastors who maintain that video evidence widely seen on social media sites show a lack of sensitivity and compassion for the woman during her arrest.

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A second, and longer video, was taken by the body camera worn by the arresting officer. It’s this video footage that has caused the impasse between the mayor and the police chief.

Backed by the aldermen, Police Chief Kerry Pittman, has refused to release the body cam footage, repeatedly saying that department policy is to not release any evidence to the general public before it is presented in court.

Neither Ferrell nor the pastors have disputed the validity of the shoplifting charge, focusing on the manner the arrest was conducted and the fact that Police Chief Kerry Pittman, with support of the full city board, has said the officers who conducted the arrest have not been disciplined, and will not be subjected to any investigation or review in the matter.

Panola County jail records show that Maddie Ann Laws, 9 Victory Rd., Courtland, was booked on charges of shoplifting, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct/failure to comply, following her arrest at Powell’s Country Store on March 15.

Laws, 30, was released that day after posting a bond, and was supposed to appear in Batesville Municipal Court to answer the charges on March 25. 

Judge Jay Westfaul found her guilty on all charges at that hearing when Laws failed to appear when her name was called on the docket, but later threw out that verdict and continued her case until Wednesday, April 12, when she arrived late to court and told Westfaul vehicle trouble had delayed her arrival. She entered a not guilty plea at that time.

Law’s supporters are not concerned with the shoplifting charge, even saying they believe she, like any other person with similar charges, should be found guilty and fined if the evidence is clear. 

Their  anger has been directed at the arresting officers, and the aldermen’s move to limit opportunities for airing of grievances at open meetings.

The video circulated on the internet shows two officers and a trainee conducting a strong takedown of Laws a struggle to handcuff her while holding her facedown in the parking lot of Powell’s, a small convenience store east of Batesville proper at the corner of Hwy. 6E and Mt. Olivet Rd.

The lead officer in the arrest is white. Both the second officer, and the trainee, are black. The defendant is also black. During the takedown and subsequent handcuffing, Laws suffered a broken shoulder, but declined to have an ambulance called to the scene, according to police.

The pastors began attempting to meet with Ferrell and the city board soon after the video, taken on a phone camera by a person at the scene, surfaced. Ferrell attempted on three occasions to have aldermen meet with the pastors, saying he believed the nature of the arrest warranted city review and police protocol examination.

Aldermen would not meet with the group as a whole, although Aldermen Bobby Walton and Bill Duggar did have one meeting with the pastors and the mayor.

In an executive meeting on March 20, Pittman told aldermen about the officer’s body cam footage and played full video for the mayor and board. It was in that meeting that Pittman refused to turn over a copy of the footage to the mayor.

All five aldermen agreed, after watching the full police video, that officers had performed their duty as best possible in the situation, and signed a statement drawn up by the mayor that recaps their assessment of the incident. 

Aldermen agreed with Pittman that footage taken by police should not be released to the mayor or the pastors. A full copy of that statement from the aldermen can be seen here.

Ferrell told The Panolian his motivation for getting a copy of the footage was to have it evaluated by a professor in the criminology studies department at Ole Miss, who would give an opinion about the manner in which the police acted on the scene.

“This is a problem that is happening all over the country, this police brutality, and we don’t want it to land here,” Ferrell said. “A professional person in the study of criminology and police should be able to give us some answers to our questions.”

Ferrell said his concern, after watching the full video, is the speed at which the situation escalated from talking to the strong arm arrest. “That just can’t happen,” Ferrell said. “There has to be a policy and procedure that allows our law enforcement to do their work, but not go from talking to on the ground in a second.”

Neither the aldermen nor Pittman would comment on the matter, referencing their standard policy of making no statements when trials are pending. The document signed by the aldermen, and released by the mayor, makes clear the city board believes Laws had ample opportunities to cooperate with police and avoid the physical confrontation. 

Pastor Louis Wilson said Laws’ supporters aren’t just concerned about her case, but about police policy going forward. 

“We are trying to seek ways where the police officers can know how to handle mentally challenged people, especially with a person who is a non threatening,” Wilson said. “We don’t want this just to apply to the mentally challenged, but we want this to apply to every citizen or visitor that comes into the city of Batesville that isn’t showing a level of threat to the police officers.”

Pastor Melvin Ellis said, “All arrests shouldn’t be violent arrests because all crime is not violent crime. If your child is on the ground and telling the officer they are hurting your shoulder, and you show no level of compassion, and state that you don’t give a damn, that’s unprofessional.”

“In a situation that doesn’t call for violence, why is the police office the one that gets violent?” Ellis said. “And If the video shows so much, why are you so reluctant to release it?”

“We are looking for justice,” Ellis said. ”This officer, from our understanding, didn’t receive any write up. We are looking for some disciplinary actions for both officers, white and black, that were on the ground with this young lade for ten dollars of shoplifting.”

The trainee, the pastors said, was mostly an observer, and should not be disciplined. They will be at the April 12 trial to support Laws, but said their mission to have further community discussion about local police procedure and protocol will not end with her case.

“What she did was wrong,” Ellis said. “But how they treated her with such violent force was worse. There is nothing that she could have done that deserved that level of disrespect for any citizen.”