The Columbus Chief of Police, Joseph St. John, has been suspended.
In a special City Council meeting held Monday afternoon, council members were informed by Mayor Robert Smith that he had placed the chief on paid administrative leave. St John will be on leave until next Tuesday, July 19, when the council will decide if St. John will continue to serve as the chief of the Columbus Police Department
Monday’s meeting was called to address “personal issues and pending litigation”. After last week’s breaking news of St. John’s alleged failed alcohol test, some members of the community began speculating that Monday’s meeting was about the chief and his future with the department. Several local citizens even showed up at the afternoon meeting in support of St. John. However, Chief St. John was noticeably absent.
The special meeting was in part called by Fire Chief Kenneth Moore to address personnel matters at the fire department. After an invocation by Councilman Mickens, the council immediately voted 5-0 to go into closed executive session. (Councilman Kabir Karriem arrived ten minutes late to the 1:30 meeting and therefore missed the vote. SF)
After an hour of the closed session, it was announced that David Cox, a seventeen year veteran with the Columbus Fire Department, had been placed on a 51 hour suspension after “failing to respond to a directive.”
As far as the pending litigation brought before the council, members of the gathered media were informed by David Armstrong, the city’s Chief Operations Officer, that it was a matter of “bad debt.” No other information about the pending litigation was provided.
Still in closed session, the Mayor then informed the City Council that he had placed Chief St. John on paid administrative earlier that morning.
Brought in to head the department in August of 2007, Chief St John had been with the CPD a little over a year when he took an unexpected leave of absence in December 2008. Reports of an alcohol problem allegedly forced the chief into two weeks of leave from the department, and upon his return, St. John reportedly signed a zero tolerance agreement where he agreed to submit to random alcohol testing.
Sources claim that after St. John failed to show at the June 17th Civil Service hearing of Officers John Pevey and Ric Higgins because of an unknown illness, he was asked to submit to an alcohol test. It is reported that St. John tested positive for alcohol, thus violating not only his agreement with the city, but according to Mayor Smith, the city’s “zero tolerance” policy regarding city employees and drinking on the job.
However, defendants of the chief and those familiar with the situation claim that the agreement had no specific expiration date. They further stress that it was not a contract, but simply a signed agreement. Under Mississippi law, any agreement entered into with an undefined expiration date is considered null and void one year after signing. If St. John signed the agreement in December of 2008 and it expired in December of 2009, he can not be held liable for actions that occurred in June of 2011.
Mayor Smith is not using the violation of the agreement as the reason for the police chief’s suspension. Instead, he is quoting the city’s “zero tolerance” policy, claiming that by having alcohol in his system during working hours, St. John is in clear violation of the policy. However, on the day that he was reportedly tested, St. John had called in sick and was technically off of work when he was picked up from his residence and taken to another location to be given the test. If St. John was in fact off the clock, it can be argued that he was not in violation of the policy because he wasn’t working.
The city’s position is that they tested the chief under city law which gives them right to perform “routine” alcohol testing. When The Packet reached out to numerous past and present city employees, not a single person that was contacted could recall a time when they or others had ever been tested for alcohol after calling in sick.
Furthermore, it is being brought into question if the police chief’s HIPPA rights have been violated. The Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act “regulates the use and disclosure” of medical records. HIPPA ensures that employees who have health insurance through their employers have the right to keep their medical records private. According to HIPPA rules and regulations, “Under HIPAA, covered entities must obtain written permission from individuals – by way of a signed authorization form – before they use or share health-related information for marketing and certain other purposes.” If the alcohol test can be viewed as a medical procedure and if Chief St. John did in fact fail the test and those results were publically shared without his permission, then there is the possibility for the city being held liable.
This is not the first time that a Columbus Police Chief has gotten into trouble involving allegedly drinking on the job. Former Police Chief Billy Pickens notoriously showed up on a scene intoxicated after a tornado ripped through Columbus in November of 2002. Pickens gave in to mounting pressure and retired in August 2003.
With hundreds of supporters rumored to attend Tuesday night’s city council meeting, the fate of Chief Joseph St. John and his future with the Columbus Police Department remains uncertain. In St. John’s absence, Assistant Chief of Police Joe Johnson is serving as acting Chief.