CPD officers voice frustration over decade old internal issues
The Civil Service Commission met last Thursday, January 19, to discuss and potentially approve promotional changes at the Columbus Police Department as well as addressing the issue of lateral hiring. After a nearly hour long meeting that consisted mostly of veteran officers voicing their frustrations to the commission, the three member panel voted to send the issues back to the mayor and city council.
The meeting began just after 5 pm at City Hall with Chief Selvain McQueen lobbying to the commission and explaining what he sees as a benefit of lateral hiring.
Lateral hiring is the act of an officer from another department being able to transfer to the CPD with their rank intact.
According to the chief, lateral hiring will “enable us to fill any void we may have such as gang expertise from wherever, across the nation, to fill gaps within the Criminal Investigations Divisions. That’s the short version.”
McQueen also informed the commission of his desire to have a second assistant police chief. He was quick to explain that the hiring of a second assistant chief would not affect current assistant chief Joe Johnson’s position.
The commission then asked McQueen about the option of promoting from within. According to the commission and the chief, the city council approved the promoting of 23 officers at the department. Commissioner Hatcher asked McQueen if they could “using that list, promote from within.”
McQueen responded “Yes sir, we’re doing that too. We’ve got that underway.”
The chief then informed the commission that he was working on the 23 promotions “as we speak.”
Commissioner Moore asked McQueen if lateral hiring would affect those pending promotions to which McQueen replied, “No sir, it would not.”
Moore then told the other members of the commission, “I don’t have any questions. If the department has a shortfall of expertise…” and then trailed off as Commissioner Hatcher then asked McQueen, “Do you have anyone in mind now?”
McQueen answered, “No sir.”
[While it can not be confirmed by the chief or Mayor Robert Smith, the widely circulated rumor at the department is that Smith has handpicked a friend of his from Greenwood to head CID. SF] Moore then asked McQueen if he was concerned about a “specific area.” The chief responded that he was concerned with “two areas,” saying he needs more manpower in patrol and CID.
Moore asked McQueen if there was a “specific slot” he was looking at filling. McQueen told Moore, “Right now, I’m worried about the criminal investigations division. I’ll be honest with you.”
The room fel quiet as the commissioners appeared to debate the task at hand when Patrolman Wade Beard, a veteran officer with 20 years of experience and a college degree, spoke up and asked the commission, “Are any of us able to speak? Before you make your decision are any of the officers able to speak?”
Commissioner Hatcher informed Beard that he had an “interest” in the issue and could address the commission.
Officer Beard voiced his concerns over lateral hiring, saying, “I would just like to point out that everybody in this room right now supported Chief McQueen as being chief. And the reason being, if anybody in here watched what he said in the interview for police chief, he said he wanted somebody local. He was local, he knew the area, he knew the people, he knew the crime. Everything that he said to get the police chief is what you have sitting in here right now. It’s not our fault that we don’t have supervisors in patrol. We haven’t had a promotion for corporal since 1998. There is a bunch of us sitting in here now that have been on the list since 1998. We haven’t had a sergeant’s promotion since ‘06, ‘04. So it’s not our fault in patrol that we don’t have supervisors. We’ve been done with the promotions process since August. For some reason, we haven’t had a promotion since August.
“If y’all approve what he’s asking then what’s going to happen is that people are going to get promoted,” said Beard. “We’re going through the promotions process here but say if someone in Greenwood or Greenville was a sergeant there, they’re going to be able to bring them in over us. And we’re never getting promoted. You’ve got people like me who has been here for 20 years that’s been eligible for promotion for that long. You’ve got other people in here, we’ve been doing the job. I’m a patrolman, senior patrolman that’s assistant to the shift leader on our shift. I don’t get any extra pay. I sign all the tickets, I do all the paperwork for a supervisor but we’re not a supervisor, not considered a supervisor. So I’m good enough to be the assistant supervisor, why am I not good enough to be the supervisor? That’s my question. We’ve got some good sergeants in the audience right now that would make good lieutenants. We’ve got good qualified people in this department. To me, it’s a slap in the face to tell me that you’ve got to go outside the department to get experience. We’ve got the experience. Just give somebody the chance to do the job. If they can’t do the job then let’s give it to the next person. But at least give us a chance to try to do the job.”
Leon Speck, a Columbus citizen, piped up, saying, “We’ve had three murders recently and the criminal investigations division has not got a single person, brought them in for questioning. If we’ve got so much experience in the investigations division, why hasn’t someone been brought in for at least questioning? We’ve had several murders years ago that haven’t been solved. If we’ve got so much qualified personal on our police department, why wasn’t none of them murders solved? Nothing against the patrolmen we have, but what kind of education have they went after to better themselves where they can handle these jobs? I’m not for bypassing them, no. They can get promoted when they’re qualified.” He continued by saying “If they’re qualified, prove it. They haven’t proved it to me. I’m with McQueen. He needs to hire people that is experienced.”
Speck then turned and address the officers saying, “You men out here, get you some education. If you haven’t got it, get you some. And then you can move yourself up.”
To that, CPD Sergeant Rick Jones immediately responded “I’ve got an education sir.”
Speck asked, “In what?”
Jones told Speck and the crowd, “I’ve got a degree in criminal justice and a bachelor’s in public administration from the University of Mississippi. I have a four year college degree.”
To Speck’s further questioning about his qualifications, Jones rattled off his lengthy history with the department including 15 years in CID.
Obviously puzzled by the outpouring of information, the commissioners asked city attorney Jeff Turnage if they had to hear the issue and vote on it the same day. Turnage informed the commission that, traditionally, a matter is not voted on the same day it is heard saying it “wouldn’t offend the council.”
Commissioner Jefferson then said he would like to leave it laying and vote on the issue at a later date. Commissioner Moore then said, “I think the question is, did you have these group of people who were having these discussions in front of the council?”
McQueen responded, “No.”
Moore said, “There seem to be several valid points from both sides. I recognize you’re going to have a morale issue at the department if you’re laterally hiring but I also recognize if you’ve got a shortfall in investigations”.
Turnage informed the commission that the officers did not get a chance to speak and the matter was decided in closed executive session before being sent to the civil service commission for final approval. The vote to approve lateral hiring reportedly passed 4-2.
In addition to Patrolman Beard and Sgt. Jones, the majority of the officers present at Thursday’s meeting hold a four year college degree with at least two of them pursing their master’s degree.
Patrolman Harstad was present at the meeting and in addition to his master’s degree, is a retired Air Force Lt. Colonel, has 14 years of experience in law enforcement and is a level two crash investigator.
Harstad claims he was told his experience “doesn’t count” when it comes to accelerating through the ranks at the CPD. Harstad applied for the position of chief of police but his resume did not make it in the top 25. McQueen does not have a college degree.
While the room broke into several conversations debating what the council would do should the issue be returned back to them, former chief of police Joe St. John spoke up saying: “When everything first came down with me, the mayor is the reason no one has been promoted. That’s what it’s about. That’s what it’s about. That’s the bottom line. You want to know where it got stopped? OK? That’s where it got stopped. And there should be a letter floating in this building that says that. Any questions?”
When asked if there was in fact a letter with a list of names recommended for promotions, Mayor Smith responded, “That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever been told. There is no letter with a list of names for promotions. If there was, wouldn’t he have a back up copy? Wouldn’t he be able to produce some evidence? St. John is a liar.”
St. John told The Packet Wednesday “My concern is that guys know the mayor is the reason the promotions were delayed.”
Since his firing in July and self-proclaimed “hiatus,” St. John has started The Real Story that started as an online news outlet but printed its first issue this week. On the cover of the premiere issue, St. John produced a letter dated June 21, 2011 from Human Resources Director Pat Mitchell that states: “At this time, the Mayor has deemed it necessary to delay the promotions process at the Columbus Police Department.”
At the paper’s launch party Wednesday night at Tampico Bay, St. John referenced his front page and repeatedly told the crowd “Robert Smith is a liar.” He added, “I didn’t lie. If you write this story and mention I didn’t move quick enough with the paperwork, that’s fine. But if you don’t mention that Robert Smith is a liar, you’re in someone’s back pocket.” Referring to The Packet, St. John said “If you don’t mention that Robert Smith is a liar you are not a real newspaper.” He added, “I will ride this until the day that I die.”
While the letter clearly states that Smith “delayed” the promotions process, some at City Hall say the timing of the letter is key. Dated June 21 and titled “Re: Promotions” Mitchell’s letter is in response to a letter St. John sent her on June 20. According to Mitchell, she received a letter from St. John regarding promotions after she, Smith, Turnage, St. John and City Chief Operations Officer David Armstrong met with the former chief to discuss his future with the department.
The letter does not recommend individual officers for promotion, instead attaching a list of cumulative scores. The scores were not broken down by category, nor were the officers ranked. St. John asks Mitchell if it is “appropriate to move forward” given that there is an “open civil service case involving one of the officers in this process.”
The officer that St. John was referring to is Patrolman Ric Higgins. Higgins was suspended after an incident in the early morning hours of New Year’s Day when his car allegedly flooded out when he attempted to drive through the intersection of 15th Avenue and College Street. St. John recommended that Higgins and his supervisor Lt. John Pevey receive a 20 day suspension as well as Pevey being stripped of his rank. The city council upheld the suspensions but chose to keep Pevey’s rank in tact. Higgins and Pevey appealed the action to the civil service commission.
The catalyst for St. John’s dismissal from the department occurred on June 17 when he called in sick and failed to show at the high-profile civil service hearing. St. John’s surprising absence prompted city officials to test the then chief for alcohol. While his blood alcohol level was reportedly below the .08 legal limit, he did in fact have alcohol in his system. St. John had previously entered into a contract with the city stating the he would refrain from consuming alcohol but due to the vague language, it was unclear if the contract was assumed to still be in effect. The results of St. John’s alcohol test were released by The Packet July 7. St. John was suspended July 11. He was terminated July 19.
When asked if his possible termination was cause for him sending the letter to Mitchell, St. John responded, “I stand by that letter. All that I do is stand by what I said. I sent the letter on the 20th. I sent it that day. I stand by that. I don’t have the paperwork in front of me but I sent the scores in. I don’t understand why you’re asking me this.”
Mayor Smith cited St. John’s questionable future with the department for the delayed promotions saying, “After he admitted the reason he didn’t show up to the hearing was because of his drinking, we didn’t know what the outcome of his own hearing was going to be.”
According to Smith, the promotional process should be back on track saying, “After St. John left, we didn’t know who the chief was going to be. We had an interim but we decided to wait until we had a permanent chief. As far as I’m concerned, if the chief recommended promotions tomorrow, I would support it.”
Of the promotions, McQueen says that he “inherited this situation. We have a lot of fine officers who deserve to be promoted and if I have anything to do with it, they will be. My final decision will be what is best for the Columbus Police Department and the citizens of Columbus.”
According to Mitchell, the list she received from St. John on June 20, was a breakdown of the scores for every officer, not individual recommendations.
Loria Porter, the secretary of the civil service commission says that she did not see a list of scores or officers recommended for promotions until October when it was given to her by McQueen.
In order for promotions to be approved by the city council, the civil service commission must first approve the list. McQueen says he followed protocol and first sent the scores to the civil service commission. The commission then certified the scores, ranked them and returned them in a sealed envelope to McQueen. However, due to an error in calculations, the original list was deemed invalid and a second list with the correct scores was certified and supplied to McQueen. McQueen then gave that list to the mayor and city council as is customary.
When asked why he did not have the list certified by the commission, St. John said, “I gave the information to Pat, she is the human resource director. The respectful thing to do was to take it to Pat. I took everything to Pat, I cleared everything with her. Here’s what the differential is. I approached them. I like approaching them and letting them know.”
The promotional test consisted of five parts, totaling up to 500 points. Officers were tested on a written test, an oral interview, a written essay, an evaluation by their commander and points for years of experience. Officers say they were given their test results shortly after each phase of testing. According to the civil service guidelines, “The promotion will be offered to the candidate with the highest number of total points. The remaining candidates will be placed on a promotional list from which promotions will be made from a period of one year. Promotional examination scores are void after one year and candidates must retake the examination to continue to be eligible for promotion.”
The promotional process began in February 2011. With the one year mark fast approaching, it is unclear if those promotions will be null and void.
The issue of promotions and lateral hiring will be taken up at the next city council meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 7. If the council approves the change to the promotion process and lateral hiring, the issue will go back before the civil service commission. The commission’s next meeting will be Thursday, Feb. 9.0