The first round of the Rincon City Council’s investigation into its police department and its former chief has revealed an atmosphere of fear and intimidation, according to city officials.
The investigation, conducted by Mayor Ken Lee and city attorney Raymond Dickey, took weeks both men said, because interviews would lead to further interviews with other city personnel and the uncovering of more information that would generate more interviews.
“We had police officers sleeping with their guns because they were in fear for their lives,” Dickey said. “They really didn’t know what to do. Some of the information came out because police officers were scared for their lives.”
The city also charged that Berry had asked for the resignations of four officers on separate occasions while hiring two officers who still needed to be certified in Georgia.
“It was pretty clear he had a plan to get rid of the seasoned, veteran officers and replace them with rookies,” Dickey said. “We feel that was done so they could be controlled.”
Dickey said Berry and Scott Collins, who also was fired in the days following the lengthy council session, have had opportunities to be interviewed for the city’s investigation.
“They have not, as of this date, chosen to participate in any of those requests,” he said.
Berry has maintained that the city never asked him or his attorney for an interview.
“I have never been requested or invited by City of Rincon officials to provide evidence, testimony or witnesses of any kind on my behalf,” he said in an e-mailed response.
Berry also has had concerns over how the investigation has been conducted. He has filed suit against the city, claiming the city council violated state open meetings laws. The city has filed a countersuit against Berry, alleging destruction of city property, among other charges.
“The City of Rincon’s actions are deplorable and embarrassing,” Berry said. “The reported ‘findings’ of their one-sided, malicious and biased administrative investigation has no credibility or factual evidence and has been manipulated and conducted by Rincon city officials who are currently involved in a lawsuit concerning their illegal and unethical behavior.
“The mayor and city attorney have no investigative experience or understanding of how to properly conduct any type of investigation. The City of Rincon is attempting to cover up their misgivings and unethical behavior in a pathetic attempt to avoid liability for their improper actions.”
In his brief tenure as chief, Berry led some officers who were resigning to believe that they were not being asked to resign in lieu of termination, according to the probe. Officer Jack Beaty, who filed a workmen’s compensation claim for a reported job-related injury, has had to have his C11 form with POST redone. POST, the Peace Officers Standards and Training Council, administers certification for police officers in the state. The C11 form reflects a change in their status.
Berry also submitted a C11 form to POST for an officer who was on medical leave that said the officer was medically disabled. Such a designation suspends her certification, according to Dickey.
Berry also is said to have hired Linda Rineair as a clerk in the department at a rate of less than $10 an hour. But he made her the executive assistant and raised her base pay to nearly $15 an hour, taking money from an open officer position to fund her raise.
“She became basically an assistant chief,” Dickey said. “He even assigned her a radio call number.”
The genesis of the investigation came from a Sept. 8 city council meeting that dragged into the early hours of the following morning. Prompted by a memo from some of Berry’s supporters to show up for the meeting, ostensibly in a show of unity for the chief, many officers instead went there to voice their complaints to council members.
The move caught council members by surprise, and council members first opted not to listen to the disgruntled employees. But then they were told those employees were prepared to turn in their resignations en masse.
“That put this body in a precarious situation,” Dickey said. “What they were presented with was we would not have a police department after the meeting that night, if they would not let those officers explain their situation.”
Baxley said those officers felt they couldn’t take their cases to the city manager. Then city manager Donald Toms had worked in Newport News city administration, where Berry had been a precinct sergeant.
“These issues were not anticipated by council,” said council member Paul Wendelken. “Things just snowballed.”
Said Dickey: “We were not aware all these people were going to show up and present that information.”
Berry was suspended following the meeting, that lasted more than seven hours, and fired two days later for disobeying a direct order from mayor and council. Dickey and council members also said Berry didn’t understand to whom he was to answer.
Chain of command issues?
Council members said it is very clear now and in the charter that the police chief answers to the mayor and council and that the city manager is in charge of day-to-day operations of the city.
“We directed the city manager on several occasions to address those issues,” Baxley said. “But we didn’t know the issues.”
Said Mayor Lee: “Apparently, there was a disagreement in the chain of command in the city of Rincon.”
Wendelken said Berry did not stand at the podium and pound his fist at council members, telling them he answered to the city manager and not to them. If he had, Wendelken said, “it wouldn’t have lasted long.”
Wendelken added that the Berry council members met in the interview process nearly a year ago was not the same man who ran the police department for nearly six months.
“The man had us all snowed,” he said.
The city also is not that different from other cities and their police chief histories, Wendelken said. Mike Barton was a good chief before being named city manager and then leaving under a cloud and his replacement, David Schofield, also was a good chief who decided to retire.
It was Schofield’s departure that opened the position for Berry.
“We catch a lot of heat for our track record,” he said. “But the track record is not that bad.”
Council members had gotten complaints from citizens who had received speeding tickets for as little as 1-3 mph over the speed limit. Dickey said the investigation uncovered that officers were required to write speeding tickets to any car that passed a Rincon police car.
The city’s discussion of the investigation also may be far from over — there could be as many as two more council meetings with information from the probe as the city delves into how much money Berry spent as police chief.
Dickey said the city’s findings have been made available to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and to POST.
“What they’re doing with it, I’m not privy to,” he said.