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Police Officers’ Appeal Continued After Six Hours of Testimony

Two Columbus police officers’ appeals to the Civil Service Commission have been continued. Friday’s hearing for 33-year-veteran Lieutenant John Pevey, now retired, and Ric Higgins, a patrolman with ten years of experience, went on for six hours before ultimately being continued.
The officers filed an appeal with the Civil Service Commission after they were suspended earlier in the year, and the inconclusive nature of last week’s hearing has yet to bring any resolution to the much-talked-about suspensions.
Pevey and Higgins were each handed a 20-day suspension without pay for an incident that occurred in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day. The city alleges that Higgins recklessly drove his patrol car through the flooded intersection of Fifteenth Avenue and College Street, and also takes the position that Higgins’s supervisor, Lt. Pevey, failed to properly report and document the incident.
In a closed executive session on February 22  that took well over four hours, the mayor and city council voted 3-3 to suspend the officers, with Mayor Smith casting the deciding vote. The council did not, however, demote Lt. Pevey to sergeant as Chief St. John had recommended.
Pevey and Higgins, represented by attorneys Shane McLaughlin and Rod Ray respectively, filed an appeal with the city on February 23 and had a hearing scheduled for April 27, when it was rescheduled due to inclement weather. The hearing was then set for June 17. The hearing had been underway for approximately 30 minutes, and both the prosecution and the defense had given their opening arguments, when it was noticed that one of the main witnesses, Chief St. John, had failed to appear. City Attorney Jeff Turnage asked the commissioners for a break while he stepped out to contact the chief. Upon returning, Turnage told the commission that the chief was “sick” and asked for a continuance. This announcement and subsequent request was met with sounds of disbelief and frustration from the crowd, which was mostly made up of Pevey and Higgins’s supporters.
Shane McLaughlin responded, saying, “I would like to move forward without the police chief’s testimony.”
After some obvious hesitation from the commissioners, he continued by saying, “We’ve had it set for some time. The initial city council hearing was in February and we’re dealing with an incident that occurred in January and, as y’all know and Mr. Turnage can appreciate, a lot of work and preparation has gone into this…I will mourn the lack of, the absence of, the chief’s testimony, too. He was a very good witness for our side of things, but if he’s not available and we didn’t know until after opening statements, we’re ready to go forward and that’s what we ask this council to do.”
Head Commissioner Al Hatcher then addressed Turnage, asking, “Are you suggesting that we adjourn the hearing until a later date?”
(Turnage) “Well, as an alternative, perhaps, maybe we will, I don’t know. Perhaps we can put on the entirety of the case without the police chief then add the police chief’s testimony at a later date, given through, I don’t know, maybe Skype or video, or some other method that will allow counsel to hear his testimony.”
(Hatcher) “We couldn’t cross examine if it was video.”
McLaughlin then interjected, “You’re right. They could submit an affidavit and then you would get certain parts, their side of things and not ours…There has got to be some closure eventually to a case like this, and I would think today is the day for closure. I would object and ask the commission not to allow them to submit later or to continue it, that we go forward with what we have today.”
(Hatcher) “What was the last thing you said?”
(McLaughlin) “I would ask that we go forward with what we have today. We are ready to proceed. That we not leave the record open, that we go forward today and finish this to conclusion.”
(Turnage) “I would like to add, though, and remind the commission that this was originally set and cancelled due to a terrible tornado, not due to the request due on the part of the city. We have been ready to proceed also. It comes as a surprise to me, too, I don’t like it, either. I do think for you all to have a fair picture of things you ought to hear from the chief.”
(McLaughlin) “Presumably, your honor and commissioners, the city could have told any of us yesterday or this morning at the very least that there was going to be some problem with the witness and it’s just incredible they waited until after the hour to begin, after we’ve all actually begun the hearing, to try to change the procedure and do something different. For that reason as well, we are ready to go forward to go forward to conclusion today.”
(Turnage) “To the extent, or the implication that I waited or withheld until the last minute…I talked to our police chief this morning at 10:30 and he did not indicate to me…I assume it was a sudden illness, I can’t possibly have anticipated or I would have told counsel, I believe that they know that I wouldn’t wait until the last second, until we’re in the middle of a case. To be honest, I’m ready for it to be over with myself.”
(McLaughlin) “I did not imply any misconduct on the part of Mr. Turnage.”
(Hatcher) “Mr. Turnage, what are you requesting that we do?”
(Turnage) “Well, I’ve conferred with the mayor and thought about whether we can go forward without Chief St. John, and we can, but I think that in order for you all to have a full and complete picture, of the decision-making process that is important to the case, either be heard today or the record be held open and Chief St. John’s testimony heard at a later date or we continue and put it all on at one time.”
(Hatcher) “Is there any other member of the police department that could fill us in on most of the stuff Chief St John could? I see the assistant chief in the back.”
(Turnage) “Well, I’ve never conferred with the assistant chief about the incident and he wasn’t the party that made the recommendation to suspend the officers so I certainly…he is perfectly capable of testifying but he’s had no preparation. I would rather, I don’t want to put on a witness who’s not familiar with the case, or as far as I know not familiar with the case.”
After a brief adjournment of approximately 15 minutes, the commissioners came back with a decision to hear all of the testimony from all witnesses present and reconvene when St. John was available.
Lt. Pevey was the first to take the stand, being questioned by Turnage, the prosecution, then Ray and, lastly, McLaughlin, with questions from the commission as well. The main points of the questions seemed to revolve around three key issues: An incident in 2010 when Lt Pevey had an accident in his city vehicle and, after pictures had been taken and a report had been filed, moved the bumper to make the truck drivable so he could take it to the city barn for repair instead of calling a tow truck; a separate incident also involving Officer Higgins when, due to a increasingly violent situation, Higgins failed to properly search a suspect, resulting in the suspect taking a concealed weapon into the county jail; and, lastly, the incident where Officer Higgins drove his patrol car through a debated amount of water.
Lt. Pevey is maintaining that he did nothing wrong in any of the incidents and is asking for reversal of the suspension. [While both received 20 days, with a police officer’s three days on, two days off work schedule that amounts to nearly a month and half off from work, or three paychecks according to defense attorney Rod Ray. SF]
The bulk of Pevey’s testimony, however, concerned the city’s stance that Lt. Pevey failed to properly report the incident with the vehicle to the Chief. According to city policy, any time a vehicle is involved in an accident, it has to be reported immediately. However, Lt. Pevey claims that he didn’t believe the vehicle to be damaged to the extent that was later determined and simply didn’t feel a need to notify the chief via telephone because he didn’t see what he saw as a “stalled vehicle” constituted an accident. To this Turnage asked:
(Turnage) “Do you think he did it on purpose?”
(Pevey) “Do I think Officer Higgins drove the car in the water on purpose?”
(Turnage) “Yeah.”
(Pevey) “No, sir, not with any intent to do it on purpose. I think he just made an error.”
(Turnage) “So then it would have been an accident, wouldn’t it?”
(Pevey) “No, sir. An accident is described as when you collide with something.”
(Turnage) “Oh, collision.”
(Pevey) “Yes, sir.”
(Turnage) “An accident isn’t the same as a collision?”
(Pevey) “Well, we’re twisting words with accident. An accident can be an accident that somebody did because they didn’t really mean to do something. In the term of the police department an accident means that you collide with another vehicle and cause injury or property damage or something.”  Turnage then continued to question Pevey, asking why Pevey did not turn in his report until Tuesday morning, the fourth, when the incident occurred on Saturday morning, which was the first.
(Pevey) “Friday was an extremely busy day, we don’t normally handle that many calls.”
(Turnage) “Would you agree with me that ‘immediate’ would imply quicker than 48 hours?”
(Pevey) “If we’re reporting something of substantial damage, then yes, sir, I would admit to that, but you’ve got to understand I didn’t feel that there was any damage done to this car. I didn’t see any, obviously. And didn’t feel that there was any damage done that would have said oh my goodness, let me call the chief or the assistant chief or whomever at the time to say, ‘Look, man, this car is really bad and tore up and totaled.’ I didn’t think the car would be damaged that bad so I felt that the pass on was sufficient and my wording sufficient until we could determine Tuesday, what, if anything, was wrong with the vehicle when the shop opened back up.”
(Turnage) “Did you not think that perhaps the vehicle, in deep of water as this one had been in, that maybe the garage superintendent should have been notified immediately?”
(Pevey) “No, sir, I did not.”
(Turnage) “Why not?”
(Pevey) “I didn’t see any damage.”
(Turnage) “You knew it wouldn’t run.”
(Pevey) “I knew that it went dead, yes, sir, that is correct. He told me, Officer Higgins told me when he called me, I didn’t see any way possible the car would have been totaled. I just didn’t see it.”
(Turnage) “All right. Have you ever seen that intersection flooded before?”
(Pevey) “I have.”
(Turnage) “How many times?”
(Pevey) “Oh, my goodness, I don’t know. Over thirty three years, probably several times, numerous times maybe.”
(Turnage) “Had you heard that somehow the city had fixed it so it wouldn’t flood anymore?”
(Pevey) “Yes, sir, I kind of heard that. I heard that they had fixed the drainage problem, up there at Twelfth and Thirteenth and Main where that used to flood real bad. I didn’t know, but I had heard that there had been some work done at Fifteenth and College and I knew that there had been some reasphalting and so forth that had taken place and some curbs gutted. I assumed that it may have been but I didn’t know that, personal knowledge.”
(Turnage) “Would you have taken your patrol car through there that night, and gone through there, that water?”
(Pevey) “You have to understand now, I’m driving a Dodge pick-up truck.”
(Turnage) “If you’re in a Crown Vic.”
(Pevey) “No, sir, I probably wouldn’t.”
(Turnage) “That’s because you know the water gets deep there, probably could cause some damage or choke it out.”
(Pevey) “Just because I would see the water and think that it wouldn’t be good to ride in the water, not because I’m making a decision on how deep the water is.” Turnage then handed a copy of a memo Pevey sent out to St. John after the incident and asked Pevey again where the patrol car was when he arrived on scene.
(Turnage) “You say in that document at least twice, I counted twice, that when you got there the vehicle was no longer in the water.”
(Pevey) “It was not.”
(Turnage) “That’s accurate?”
(Pevey) “Yes, sir.”
Turnage then asked Pevey to make a drawing on a board with a map of Fifteenth and College, indicating where he parked once he arrived on scene and where Officer Higgins’s car was. Officer Pevey drew his diagram on the board and then was dismissed from the witness stand.
Officer Higgins then took the stand where he was also questioned by Turnage, Ray, McLaughlin, and members of the commission. Higgins asked the commissioners to lessen the days on his suspension, which he and Pevey have already served. In effect, he is asking for reimbursement for his time lost.
On the night in question, Higgins was headed eastbound on College Street. He claims the front of his vehicle drove through the water without hesitation but then the car seemingly stalled when the back end of the cruiser hit the dip in the road where College intersects with Fifteenth Avenue. According to Higgins, the water was not as deep as the prosecution claims when he initially drove through it. Both defense attorneys mentioned multiple times that there was a flash flood warning and three tornado warnings that evening, that there was already water on the streets in Columbus, and that the intersection in question is prone to rapid flooding. Turnage then began question Higgins, asking the patrolman what exactly occurred that morning.
(Turnage) “Now I understand you feel bad about it, no one is suggesting you feel good about it, but you realized when your car stalled that you were in a bad situation, didn’t you?”
(Higgins) “At first I didn’t realize why it had stalled in the intersection. I remember rolling down my window and looking out, but the water was still well below the bottom of the car at that time.”
(Turnage) “But it was well above the bottom of the tire, wasn’t it? It was covering part of your car tire I assume.”
(Higgins) “Possibly the back car tire was a little lower. As I stated in my report, I had just driven through that dip. At first I didn’t know why it had shut off, but I looked out my window and saw the water was below the level of the car, but I believe the rear of the car may have been a little lower.”
(Turnage) “Why do you believe that it cut off?” (Higgins) “Like I said, at the time I did not know.”
(Turnage) “What did you do? If I understood what your attorney read, you turned the ignition off and you tried to turn it back on.”
(Higgins) “When it cut off, all the lights and everything were still on. The ignition was still in the on position. I switched it back on and nothing happened, so I switched it back off and left it there. That’s when I called for the wrecker service and everything and advised my supervisor that the car had to be towed because it wasn’t running.”
(Turnage) “Did you put it in park and see if it would turn over?”
(Higgins) “No.”
(Turnage) “Why not?”
(Higgins) “Like I said, I already put it forward once and nothing happened, so-”
(Turnage) “You turned it far enough where the engine would turn over, you didn’t just put it in the position it would end up.”
(Higgins) “It was still in the on position when it shut off. So I turned it back and nothing happened so I just left it.”
(Turnage) “But you turned it all the way past start so it would turn over and start again, right?”
(Higgins) “At the time I didn’t know why it quit.”
(Turnage) “Right. And the logical thing, I would have done it, you turn it over as far as it will go to see if the motor would turn over, right?”
(Higgins) “But the motor didn’t turn over.” (Turnage) “But you turned it far enough where the motor would have turned over if it operated correctly.”
(Higgins) “Yes, that is correct.”
(Turnage) “And then you notified your supervisor, right?”
(Higgins) “Yes.”
(Turnage) “Why is that?”
(Higgins) “Anytime a vehicle is towed, it’s stalled out or has to be towed, you notify a supervisor about it.”
(Turnage) “Is there a policy on that?”
(Higgins) “I’m not sure if it’s an actual written policy, but it’s just kind of procedure.”
(Turnage) “That makes sense to me. So did you feel that you had done all you needed to do under the policy?”
(Higgins) “At that time, yes.”
(Turnage) “Did you think that your superior officer, Lt. Pevey, would notify his department head?”
(Higgins) “I have no idea about that. For a simple towed vehicle you usually don’t. A few months earlier that same vehicle had stopped on me, I think a fuel pump or something had gone out on it and you just notify a supervisor and wait for a wrecker to get there.”  Turnage also questioned Higgins on whether or not he viewed the stalled vehicle as a “accident.”
(Turnage) “Are you also of the opinion that this wasn’t that sort of an event?”
(Higgins) “A vehicular accident, on the normal reports as we call them, a vehicular accident report involves a collision. I see this more as a towed vehicle.”
Turnage then questioned Higgins, asking, “Do you contend that your punishment from the mayor and the council was without cause?”  Higgins responded, “Yes.”
(Turnage) “So it’s your position that your actions didn’t warrant any discipline that night?”
(Higgins) “Not twenty days.”
(Turnage) “Are you saying then it should have been zero?”
(Higgins) “They based the twenty days on saying I violated the city’s accident policy.”
(Turnage) “That’s not exactly true.”
(Higgins) “They went by the policy of the Accident Review Board, they went by those policies to determine my twenty days suspension.”
(Turnage) “The Accident Review Board determined that it wasn’t subject to the Accident Review Guidelines.”
(Higgins) “Yes, but they still implemented the guidelines in my punishment.”
(Turnage) “They ignored the guidelines and gave twenty days.”
(Higgins) “It was above and beyond the guidelines.”
(Turnage) “That’s right.”
After asking Higgins to also draw the position of his vehicle on a map of the intersection, he was dismissed from the stand.
Steven Dye, a witness for the prosecution and bouncer at Tampico Bay, located at 1515 Second Avenue South, then took the stand and testified to what he claims he saw that morning. Dye and a friend were sitting inside his vehicle in the former Palmer Home Thrift Store parking lot just before 2:30 a.m. when he captured a video on his camera phone of the incident. At the time the video was recorded, several police officers, including officers Fred Grammar, Paul Garrett, and Josh Vandiver, were on scene as well as the wrecker from Hall’s Towing. Lt. Pevey’s vehicle was noticeably absent in the video, although the prosecution claims the reflection of Pevey’s blue lights can be seen in the video. The short video clip shows Higgins’s car stranded in increasingly rising water as rain continues to pour, with the back end of the vehicle obviously lower than the front. Pevey was driving a 2002 Dodge Ram that night, but Dye claimed repeatedly that an SUV, not a pick-up truck, was on scene. Ray and McLaughlin both questioned Dye on his being able to tell the difference between an SUV and a truck and Dye emphatically claimed he knew the difference between the two, maintaining that he saw an SUV on scene that night. Dye was questioned by Turnage and then Higgins’s attorney, Rod Ray, about the events he saw that night.
(Mclaughlin) “Did you actually see Lt. John Pevey on the scene?”
(Dye) “I can’t say I can and I can’t say I didn’t. It was dark and I can’t make a 100 percent.”
(McLaughlin) “Do you know if Officer Higgins remained in the automobile until it was pulled out of the water?”
(Dye) “He was in it until it was pulled up to the edge of the water, yes.”
(McLaughlin) “Did you stay there after they pulled the vehicle out?”
(Dye) “For a few minutes, I didn’t watch the whole…”
(McLaughlin) “Is the white SUV depicted in the video?”
(Dye) “Not as far as visually, but you can see the reflection …. off the light.”
(McLaughlin) “So if I understand you right, you stood outside Tampico Bay, under the awning from ..?”
(Dye) “Probably woulda been from around 9 until 1:30-2 o’clock.”
(McLaughlin) “Now this was recorded at 2:20, were you still there?”
(Dye) “That would have been around the time that I got into my vehicle.”
(McLaughlin) “Had you seen, what time was it as best you can remember that from the west, down College headed east stopped and then turned around.”
(Dye) “It would have been a couple of hours before closing, so I’d say anywhere from 11:30ish on.”
(Ray) “Your statement …. (?) It is your testimony that you were working at Tampico Bay that night working as a security guard and you got there at 9, you said?”
(Dye) “Correct, 9ish.”
(Ray) “What time did y’all close that night?”
(Dye) “We normally have everyone out by 1:30.”
(Ray) “1:30, you hung around after that time period?”
(Dye) “Correct.” (Ray) “What did you do after you closed?”
(Dye) “The gentleman that was in the vehicle with me was waiting on a ride to take him back to Alabama, so it was raining, so I told him I would sit with him until his ride comes down the road.”
(Ray) “So y’all sat out in the car?”
(Dye) “Correct.”
(Ray) “Or truck rather, I think you said an F150.”
(Dye) “Correct.”
(Ray) “And it is your testimony that you did not see him drive into the intersection.”
(Dye) “I did not see him drive into the intersection.”
(Ray) “So you cannot, you just saw a car in the intersection that appeared to be a police car.”
(Dye) “That is a correct statement.”
(Ray) “And I think you testified that you guess you kinda got a kick out of seeing cars come and have to turn around, did you see something down in there?”
(Dye) “No.”
(Ray) “Were there any barricades up?”
(Dye) “No.”
(Ray) “Did you call 911 and say Hey, I’ve been sitting out here for about two hours and the water’s way up here on the road and I’m afraid someone’s going to get stuck in it…did you ever do that?”
(Dye) “No, I did not.”
(Ray) “You just got a kick out of watching these cars.”
(Dye) “That would be true.”
Turnage called city mechanic Willie Clark to the stand and had him explain to the commissioners why he totaled the vehicle. Clark stated that he tried to turn the engine over by rotating the fan belt to start the pistons when water flooded out of the engine. At the city council meeting back in February, Clark claims he drained 10 gallons of water out of the Crown Victoria’s engine.
Nick Wilson, the head mechanic at Premier-Ford-Lincoln-Mercury, was then called to the stand by the defense to rebut Clark’s testimony. A mechanic for over 30 years and specializing in Ford models such as the Crown Victoria, Wilson explained to the commission why, in his opinion, the vehicle should not have been totaled. Wilson stated that, in his opinion, when Higgins drove the back end of the cruiser through the intersection, water got into the exhaust pipe and therefore was sucked into the air intake compartment, which would cause the vehicle to stall but not damage the vehicle. The air intake compartment is located on the rear left driver’s side of Crown Victoria’s, he said. He opined that Higgins would have gotten the same result if he had merely driven through a puddle and his tires splashed water into the compartment.
Wilson then further offered his opinion, saying that if Clark inspected the vehicle the way he claims he did, the car was damaged at the garage. According to the veteran mechanic, spark plugs should always be unplugged before tinkering with the motor.
Wilson told The Packet that there was “no way physically possible he (Clark) got 10 gallons of water out of that car.” [Crown Victorias are only physically capable of holding 17 quarts of liquid. One liter is equal to 1.06 quarts. One quart is equal to .25 gallons. 17 quarts of liquid is 4.25 gallons, less than half of the alleged 10 gallons in the engine. SF] While Wilson did not examine the car himself and has no first hand knowledge of the damage to the patrol car, he was adamant in his testimony that “that officer didn’t total that car.” [He was referring to Higgins. SF]
After nearly six hours of testimony, Mayor Smith was called to the stand as a witness for the prosecution. When asked earlier in the hearing if Lt. Pevey thought he was suspended with political reason, Pevey responded with a “yes” and went on to explain an incident that occurred just weeks before Mayor Smith broke the 3-3 tie to suspend Pevey and Higgins. According to Pevey, a woman called him about a situation with her daughter and her four-year-old grand daughter. The woman identified herself as the mayor’s ex-wife and explained to Pevey that their daughter was in the hospital having a baby and her grand daughter was in the care of friends. She asked Pevey if she could go get her grand daughter, as she did not approve of these people caring for her grandchild. As Columbus police officers make a point not to get involved in civil issues, Pevey informed the woman that due to the extenuating circumstances she could get her grandchild, but, once her daughter was out of the hospital, she would have to return the child to her mother. Pevey then filed a report, and as is common practice when an official is involved, noted Mayor Smith’s name on the report, and then e-mailed the report to Chief Joe St. John, Assistant Chief Joe Johnson, and several other officers who are considered higher-ups in the department. When Mayor Smith found out that his name was included in the report, he called Chief St. John and asked for a meeting with Pevey, which St. John arranged. Once in the meeting, Pevey claims that Mayor Smith yelled at him and “repeatedly asked why, why is my name in this report?” Shane McLaughlin then questioned the mayor and submitted a recording of the 30-minute meeting, that was not played during the meeting but McLaughlin claims the mayor can be heard telling Pevey “This ain’t over.”
According to sources close to The Packet, Mayor Smith sent a fax to the city barn instructing them to total the vehicle. Less than three weeks after their meeting, Smith cast the deciding vote to suspend both officers. When questioned by Turnage about his meeting with Lt. Pevey and the mayor’s feelings and motivation for suspension, the mayor responded with the following:
(Mayor Smith) “I was curious about my being included in the report, and it was brought to my attention by Chief St. John while I was in a conference in Jackson.”
(Turnage) “And did you have a problem with that?”
(Mayor) “Yes. I was curious as to why my name was included in it. There was no crime committed.”
(Turnage) “What did you do?”
(Mayor) “I asked Chief when he showed it to me if that was proper protocol, and he said no. And I asked why it was done and he said he didn’t have any idea. After we got back to Columbus and I called the chief and asked him if I could have a conference with Lt. Pevey, and he said yes and I asked if we could have some witnesses present when I spoke to him concerning him and he said yes and he did set up the meeting.”
(Turnage) “Were you angry about it?”
(Mayor) “I still don’t have an answer why.”
(Turnage) “Were you mad at Lt. Pevey?”
(Mayor) “No, I wasn’t mad at him.”
(Turnage) “Did you and he get in a confrontation?”
(Mayor)  “I wouldn’t say we got into a confrontation, he was trying to explain, said that this was normal protocol and normal procedure.”
(Turnage) “Does that incident have anything to do with your decision to go and break the ties and suspend Lt. Pevey for 20 days?”
(Mayor) “No.”
(Turnage) “Why did you vote to suspend him?”
(Mayor) “Based on facts and circumstances brought to me by Joseph St. John.”
(Turnage) “And what were those facts and circumstances, best as you can summarize them?”
(Mayor) “There were several incidents of him not following through from being a supervisor and an incident concerning a patrol car where the car was towed and an incident with a Fox young man, and also the third one would be where he had a fender bender and proper protocol, according to the chief, were not followed.”
(Turnage) “Were your personal feelings influenced in your vote?”
(Mayor)  “No.”
After the mayor’s testimony, the commissioners left the record open and motioned for Turnage to contact Chief St. John and set a new hearing date. As of press time Wednesday evening, a new hearing date had not been set. Pevey, Higgins, Chief St. John and Turnage all declined to comment, except for Lt. Pevey, who said: “I can’t understand that the chief brings charges on these officers and is then too sick to attend.”
The three events mentioned in the hearing were the only incidents in Lt. Pevey’s 33 years with the department and the only incident in Officer Higgins’ 10 year career, according to their attorneys.
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