Rincon City Council denied former police chief Michael Berry’s appeal of his termination Monday night, but that doesn’t appear to be the end of the dispute between the city and the ousted chief.
After 45 minutes of deliberation, council members voted unanimously to uphold the termination. Berry was fired Sept. 12 for disobeying orders from mayor and council. Berry declined to comment after the meeting.
But just who the chief was supposed to take orders from was a point of contention between Berry and his attorney, Keith Barber of Statesboro, and the city.
After he was suspended in the early morning hours of Sept. 9, following a marathon executive session, Berry was instructed by Mayor Ken Lee not to have any contact with police officers or police department personnel and not to return to the police department unless escorted.
“Mayor and council believed the best course of action was to place Mr. Berry on administrative leave until the investigation was concluded,” Lee said, “and (he was) instructed not to have any contact with any police department personnel. The purpose was to protect all employees involved, including Mr. Berry, so that no one could say Mr. Berry was influencing them.”
Lee said Berry was told, in a meeting with the mayor and council member Levi Scott, that he could make arrangements to retrieve his personal belongings.
“Almost immediately after being told of the restrictions, he attempted to contact police officers and staff in violation of the directives,” Lee said. “He also had several communications with police staff and police officers. He also went to the police department without mayor and council nor their consent in violation of the directive. Mr. Scott went to the police department to meet with the sheriff and found Mr. Berry present. Mr. Berry then went back to the police department again without the consent of the mayor and council.”
But Berry and his attorney countered that there was never anything in writing and that Berry understood to take his direction from City Manager Donald Toms.
“I believe he did what he felt he was told to do,” Barber said. “I don’t think he did it with any attempt to circumvent the mayor and the council members.
“We’re not saying that the chief of police doesn’t have to answer to the mayor and city council, by any means. He was told when he came here that he would answer to Mr. Toms.”
“The night of my suspension, I was told I still report to the city manager,” Berry said.
Barber pointed to the letter of a job offer sent to Berry on March 17, outlining to whom Berry was to answer.
“Is it your opinion, Mr. Toms, as city manager, that the mayor has the authority to suspend Chief Berry?” Barber asked Toms.
“I can’t answer that,” Toms replied.
“Why can’t you answer that?” Barber inquired.
Toms said it’s because the mayor and council have certain duties and authority. Toms said he was not the only one who had the authority to suspend Chief Berry and that the mayor and council had the authority to fire Chief Berry.
“Because my authority stems from the mayor and council,” Toms said.
In a letter dated Sept. 22 to the mayor and council, Toms removed himself from direct supervision of the police department.
During that time, it was stated he was to have proper escort to the police department.
Dickey, citing sections of the city charter, said all department heads shall be responsible to the mayor and council for the administration of their departments and that the chief of police shall be appointed by the council.
But Barber again pointed to the letter of the job offer that said the chief would report to the city manager. Toms also said the mayor approved LaMeisha Hunter to act as an escort for Berry if he wanted to return to the police department to retrieve his belongings.
“If he needed to go back to the police department, he was welcome to go back during business hours, as long as the mayor, council or Ms. Hunter was present,” Toms said. “At no time did I say do not follow the orders of mayor and council.”
Berry: Don’t know why I was being suspended
Berry said he was taken aback by the suspension and was informed by the mayor and Dickey he was being placed on administrative leave around 3:30 a.m. Sept. 9.
“I was really confused about it. It didn’t make any sense about why I was being suspended,” he said. “They said it was for your protection. They said I couldn’t have any conversation with police personnel concerning the investigation and that I could not go unescorted to the police department.”
Berry said Mayor Lee and Dickey told him he could call them at any time to be escorted back to the department. He also said he never received anything in writing about the mayor and council’s orders.
“They wouldn’t even tell me why I was being suspended,” he said. “I asked for it in writing, and they wouldn’t tell me. I asked Mayor Lee by telephone if he could put it in writing and he said he didn’t think he could.”
Berry also said it was his understanding that he was not to talk to the officers or police personnel about the investigation, not to have any contact with them at all.
“When I was at Newport News in internal affairs, you don’t discuss the investigation,” he said. “If I couldn’t talk to any police personnel, I would have had some concerns because I had a police officer, a cadet, who was my roommate going through the academy. There were a lot of administrative things going on. Who was going to take care of that?
The only people I knew were police officers and city employees. My family was in Virginia. So it would have drawn a lot more concern.”
Berry said it would have been easy for him to avoid asking other officers or personnel about the investigation.
“I really didn’t know what the investigation entailed, or who are the ones making the allegations. I had no idea,” he said.
A meeting at city hall a few hours after he was placed on administrative leave was “emotional” on his part, Berry said. “I was not getting any answers. That’s not something I was used to.”
Deciding upon escorts
Berry said he and Don Toms decided upon Hunter as an escort. Berry said it was not his understanding that he had to have the mayor or a member of council as an escort following his Sept. 9 morning meeting with Toms.
“As long as you had a witness, someone who can make sure nothing was taken, that nothing was being done wrong, that was what the escort was supposed to do,” he said. “And again, I had nothing in writing.”
Berry turned in his gun, badge and identification in his first visit to the department, escorted by Hunter, Scott Collins and Linda Rineair. The morning of Sept. 10, Berry tried to find Hunter, Toms and city clerk Wanda Hendrix to no avail, he said. He also could not reach Lee by cell phone. He asked Rineair, his administrative assistant, to remove the paintings from his wall and he walked into the front of the building.
He said he retrieved his contacts book and turned in his code and policy books. Scott showed up a few minutes later, and he and Berry discussed the city’s probations department and an incident involving Collins the night before.
“Levi Scott never said, ‘Chief, what are you doing here? You’re not supposed to be here. You’re not with your escort.’ He signed (the receipt for his books) and watched me walk to the car.”
On his third visit to the department, just prior to leaving to visit his family in Virginia, Berry said he was turning in his vehicle, rather than leaving it in front of his townhome. He asked Sgt. Brian Boatright to meet him and Boatright said he would be there in 30 minutes, but Berry said he did not hear back from Boatright after more than two hours. His roommate, Bobby Peters, drove the police car to the department and Berry drove his rental car. Berry said he remained in the grass between the library and the police station, speaking with Rineair and her husband and getting a receipt for his car from officer Lee Witt.
Berry said he began to get “weird feelings about the way things were going on” when he drove by the city attorney’s office and saw three Rincon police officers on the porch “and I decided to stay the hell away from the police department.”
Berry said being told not to talk to any police personnel at all would have been “a set up for failure” since he lived with another officer.
“If there was a misunderstanding on my part, I take full responsibility,” he said. “I meant no disrespect to the city manager, the city council and the mayor, none whatsoever. I thought I was doing what I was directed to do.
“I understand that was a lot going on and I still understand there’s a whole lot of other things going on,” Berry said.
“I worked internal affairs in Newport News and you’re talking about 17 years in law enforcement without any issues.”
What did the mayor tell Berry to do?
According to Berry, the mayor and Scott told the chief in a meeting later Tuesday morning that the issue and his administrative lave would be resolved soon.
“I was told the suspension was going to be quick, that this was just a speed bump,” Berry said.
He said he offered to resign, but the mayor told him he didn’t want Berry to resign. “I was upset and said, ‘I need my escort,’ and walked out,” he said.
“There weren’t any orders given that day,” Berry said.
But Scott and Lee said they told Berry he could not be in the department without either the mayor or a council member.
“I am kind of leery that an adult cannot understand direct orders from the mayor not to be into the building unescorted,” Scott said. “I know it was made clear from the mayor in my presence to you not to return unescorted without council or mayor.”
Said Lee: “I believe my directions to you were very clear — that you were not to have any contact with any police officers or staff.”
Berry said he took Lee’s orders to be not to talk to officers about the investigation during the 3:30 a.m. meeting on Sept. 9 in his office.
“That’s what I heard at 3:30 in the morning in my office, hearing I was being suspended for something and wasn’t being told why I was being suspended,” Berry said. “I still asked for things in writing and to this day don’t know, in writing, what was the reference for the suspension.
“It would have been easier if it was put in writing because then there wouldn’t be any, ‘he said, she said.’”
Lee reiterated that his directions were for Berry not to have any contact with any police officers or staff.
“It didn’t say in reference to the investigation. It didn’t say anything of that nature,” he said. “It said you were not to have any contact with any police officers or staff.”
But Berry countered that Lee told him not to discuss the investigation with any officers.
“That’s what I heard you say,” Berry said. “But again, if it was in writing, it would help both of us.”
City’s ongoing investigation
The city also has been investigating allegations against the chief since September, and that process also sparked a brief but pointed exchange between city attorney Raymond Dickey and Berry.
Lee said the city would be filing a C-11 with the Peace Officers Standards and Training Council that will include the 48 allegations currently under investigation.
“We have made ourselves available to you to respond to these allegations and still do so,” Lee said.
But Berry said he got a letter from the city attorney last Friday that said the city had not finished its investigation and was not ready to speak with Berry or his attorney. The letter, dated Nov. 15, was faxed to Barber’s office on Nov. 14.
Dickey said the city has contacted Berry and his attorney “several times.”
“No, you haven’t,” Berry said.
“Oh yes we have,” Dickey countered.
“In reference to the 48 allegations you put in the newspaper?” Berry retorted.
Dickey said the city has asked Berry and his attorney to speak with them on multiple occasions about the allegations.
“That’s not true,” Berry said.
Barber said he and Berry would get with the proper authorities.
“We don’t need a circus type atmosphere,” Barber told Dickey and the council members, “and I think you would agree with me.”
Spectators to the appeal hearing and members of the press were subjected to a metal detector before entering the council chambers.
Lee said he and Dickey are close to finishing the investigation and that they would make themselves available to speak with Berry and Barber about the allegations. Lee and Dickey likely will do some follow-up interviews, the mayor said.
What’s next for the department is to find another chief, its fourth in just over two years.
“As far as I can determine, this process is concluded, and we’ll begin looking for a police chief as quickly as we can,” Lee said.