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.
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, in an e-mailed response, countered the city still has yet to ask him or his attorney for an interview.
"I have never been requested or invited by City of Rincon officials to provide testimony, evidence or witnesses of any kind on my behalf," he said.
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.
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.”
Council member Ken 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.”
Berry was suspended following the Sept. 8 meeting, that lasted more than seven hours, and fired two days later.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.
For more, see Friday's edition of the Effingham Herald.