By Bill Short
Two men who were fired as police officers presented their cases for reinstatement last week at separate hearings conducted by the Millington Personnel Appeals Board.
A hearing was held on Oct. 26 for Tully Reed and on Oct. 27 for Charles Coleman. Jeff Ward of Munford was the attorney representing each man.
In his opening statement at both hearings, City Attorney Charles Perkins said that, when Millington resident Jimmy Wayne Smith died of natural causes, officers who investigated the death found approximately $20,000 in his mobile home. He noted that the money was placed in the Property and Evidence Room at the police department.
On Aug. 20, when Smith’s family came to retrieve the money, more than $12,000 was missing.
The next day, City Manager Ed Haley began an investigation when he went to the police department and took photographs of the property room.
“It was wide open at that point,” Perkins said. “A sack of money was contained in a safe, which was wide open and apparently had not been locked for months.”
Haley also interviewed then-Police Chief Frank Tennant and several officers in the department’s Criminal Investigation Division.
Perkins said that, as a lieutenant, Reed was the “evidence officer,” and Coleman was his supervisor as an inspector in charge of the CID. He also said Haley discovered that Coleman had written the policies and procedures for managing the property room.
With the city manager’s approval, Perkins called Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich and asked her to contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to conduct a probe regarding the missing money.
Perkins said Haley then learned that, in July 2014, Rex Barton of The University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service presented a written report on his study of the police department at a meeting of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen.
The study found that the property and evidence functions in the department were “severely lacking,” and that it was not following its own “protocols” regarding them.
In February 2014, based on the study’s preliminary findings and recommendations, then-Interim City Manager Mike Chesney met with the CID’s command staff. He told the officers to “clean up” the property room by removing seized drugs and guns that had been stored there for years.
On a recommendation by Coleman and Reed, retired police inspector Jimmy Little was then hired part-time to assist them in that task before the final MTAS report was completed.
After his investigation of the missing money, Haley concluded that Coleman and Reed had been “negligent” in the performance of their duty to follow the department’s established protocols.
On Aug. 31, a city official hand-delivered a check for the full amount due to Smith’s family. Tennant resigned the next day, and Haley fired Coleman and Reed soon after that.
Perkins said the city considers Haley’s actions “proper, legal and ethical in all respects,” and that his decision should be affirmed by the PAB.
In his opening statements, Ward said that, when the missing money was reported by the news media, Haley decided that the city had to “do something.”
“So, they did,” he said. “Before the investigation even started, they found two scapegoats, and they fired them.”
Ward said the MTAS report mentions “temporary storage,” because there is “limited access” to the property room.
“If somebody gets evidence at 10 p.m.,” he noted, “there’s no way to store that. They can’t get into the property room, because there’s no one on duty to let them in.”
While noting that the police department has employed two detectives for many years, Ward said it has not had the “time or manpower” to remove old evidence after a case is finally adjudicated.
He noted that the property room was open on the day Haley inspected it, because Little was working in there.
Although the city’s “big issue” is that there was not a “volunteer sign-in sheet” for the property room, Ward said there was a list of the officers who had access to it. With a sign-in sheet, he said, there would not have just been a theft, but also “bunches of pieces of paper” with detectives’ names on them.
“That doesn’t solve the crime,” he noted. “It’s red herring.”
Haley testified at both hearings that, when he inspected the property room on Aug. 21, the bag where the money was missing was inside the safe with the door open. And after reading the MTAS report, he decided a “message” had to be sent that the city would not tolerate a failure to follow procedures and protocols.
“It was not a progressive discipline area,” he said. “It was severe enough where a firm, clear, definitive position needed to be taken. I felt like termination was appropriate, and I did it.”
Under cross-examination by Ward, Haley acknowledged that following a set of rules would not “keep a thief from being a thief.” He also admitted that he has “no idea” who stole the money or whether he will ever find out.
Reed testified that six officers spent 12 hours emptying the property room and “dissecting” the boxes. Each box was then locked in a jail holding cell, so they would not be “continually shuffling” them.
“Mr. Haley came in and shot a half-dozen photos in the middle of all this, and there were a lot of detectives everywhere,” he acknowledged. “But we were examining every location to be certain that there wasn’t half a bag of money stuck in the wrong place.”
Reed noted that he was not given a copy of the entire MTAS report, and he could not recall when he first read it. But he said the major issues were the guns and drugs that should have been dealt with many years ago.
Because the two safes in the building were both “older” than him, Reed said he told then-Police Chief Ray Douglas that they should be repaired, or new ones needed to be purchased.
“He didn’t want to talk about it,” Reed recalled. “The culture at the department is, ‘Do whatever you want, just don’t spend any money.’”
He also said that, at the department, policies are not updated by “written communication from above.” They are posted on the Web site for the officers to read.
“The sign-in sheet wasn’t there,” he noted, “because we weren’t aware that the policy had changed requiring it to be there.”
Reed said he is attempting to regain his reputation and his job with whatever disciplinary action the PAB considers “reasonable.”
“I’m not the friendliest guy in the world,” he acknowledged. “I don’t know a lot of people who want to come sit down and eat dinner with me, I guess, but I’m honest. Nobody in this room will tell you they think I stole that man’s money.”
Coleman testified that he attended meetings with city officials about the MTAS report. But he said the first time he ever saw or read it was when Haley gave him a copy shortly before he was fired.
Coleman also said he did not know there were “issues” with the safe in the property room until the day the money was discovered missing.
“It was not common for me to go into the property room,” he noted. “In my position, I didn’t deal directly with the evidence.”
Coleman acknowledged that he has no excuse for not implementing the sign-in sheet policy. But he said it would not have prevented the money from being stolen.
He also said he “never laid eyes” on the bag or the money until the day Reed told him that some of it was missing.
Like Reed, Coleman said he is attempting to regain his reputation and his job.
“I don’t think the punishment fits the crime,” he concluded. “I think there can be a better outcome than termination of a man who’s spent just about his whole adult life here in this city.”
In his closing argument at both hearings, Perkins said failure to know the law and the published regulations is not an excuse.
“If you’ve got the job, you’re expected to perform it,” he noted. “You can’t talk the talk and not walk the walk. You’ve got to do both.”
Perkins said such defenses as, “I didn’t know,” or, “We’ve got a thief in the department,” may sound nice, but that is not the “real world.” He said that, in the real world, you make sure the safe works, and it is locked.
In his closing arguments, Ward said he does not believe anyone should be fired because of violation of a policy that “has no real negative effect.”
He said the Millington Police Department has been “in shambles” for 20 years. And now, the city is going to hold two men accountable because there was no sign-in sheet.
While noting that people make mistakes in the “real world,” Ward said Coleman and Reed had “owned up” to theirs. He also said the PAB must decide whether their terminations are warranted after 20 years of “exemplary reviews” and experience keeping the city safe.
“I don’t think you denigrate people who put their lives on the line day after day for a city that doesn’t appreciate them,” he concluded. “And now, it hangs them out to dry before an investigation is finished.”