Investigation launched, police officers suspended after local business owner detained

Taylor Vance, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo
·4 min read

Mar. 17—TUPELO — The Tupelo Police Department has launched an internal investigation and suspended two of its police officers without pay after they detained a local businessman, according to a statement from Mayor Jason Shelton.

Wesley Wells, a prominent businessman and community volunteer who is Black, was walking near the ring road at the Mall at Barnes Crossing Tuesday night when he was detained for a time by TPD officers.

Shelton said police officers were dispatched to the mall to investigate a pair of alleged shoplifters.

One of the individuals involved in the alleged incident was detained by mall security, and the other individual fled on foot while wearing "a white hat, white shirt and dark pants" Shelton said.

The mayor said Wells was wearing clothing that matched the description of the individual who fled from the mall, but insisted at length that Wells is not suspected of any wrongdoing.

"On behalf of the City of Tupelo I want to publicly apologize to Mr. Wesley Wells for the unfortunate incident which occurred," Shelton said. "Again, Mr. Wells is completely innocent of any unlawful behavior and is a longtime community volunteer and local business owner."

Shelton's statement comes after Wells uploaded a video to Facebook on Tuesday night after the incident occurred, offering his account of the incident.

In the video, Wells said that when the police officers stopped him, they asked him to identify himself because he matched the description of the person who fled the mall.

But because he was exercising outside, Wells did not have any form of identification on him, but identified himself to the officers. He even told them they could check with the general manager of the mall, with whom he is friends, to verify his identity.

"I don't give a damn who you know," Wells recounted an officer saying.

He accused the officers of being overtly rude, refusing to wear masks after he asked them to do so to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and placing him in handcuffs in the back of a patrol car for approximately 15 minutes.

"If they're going around treating citizens like this, there needs to be some changes immediately," Wells said in the video. "I'm sorry, I can't let this go. I mean, I was just robbed of every little piece of dignity I had tonight."

The video, which has been viewed at least 3,000 times on Facebook, prompted local business leaders, clergy and elected officials to respond to the video, criticizing the actions of the officers and defending Wells' character.

Shelton's statement said that Wells' detention is under investigation by the Internal Affairs Division within the police department.

Pending the internal investigation, two of the officers involved have been suspended without pay, one has received "a verbal counseling" and all three officers have been ordered to attend sensitivity and de-escalation training.

The statement does not release the names of the officers involved.

Wells' wrongful detention is the latest event in a long line of controversies surrounding the tactics and methods of Tupelo's police department.

In 2016, a white police officer fatally shot Antwun "Ronnie" Shumpert, a 37-year-old unarmed Black man. The shooting prompted a wave of protests in the community and was linked to wide distrust of local law enforcement by Black citizens.

A grand jury failed to indict the Tupelo police officer who was involved in the shooting. A civil suit over Shumpert's death was dismissed in federal court and the U.S. Supreme Court later declined to intervene.

Since then, former police officers have filed suits against the department alleging sexual harassment and racial discrimination within the workplace. All of them have been settled outside of court.

After George Floyd died at the hands of police officers in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last year, hundreds of citizens expressed concern that Tupelo should take proactive steps to ensure that something similar does not happen in Tupelo and that efforts should be made to make the Tupelo Police Department more transparent.

After many community protests, several municipal politicians pledged to listen to concerns of citizens and work together to make potential reforms of local law enforcement.