Rincon City Council members voted to deny the reinstatement of a veteran police officer fired last month.
Lee Witt was fired by the city in February and appealed the council’s decision Monday night. But council members voted 5-0, after a handful of testy exchanges between Mayor pro tem Paul Wendelken and Council member Levi Scott with Witt’s attorney Melissa Calhoun.
Mayor Ken Lee was out of town, leaving Wendelken to preside over the meeting, and Council member Reese Browher left because of a family situation.
Council members deliberated for approximately 45 minutes before making their decision. They voted to uphold the termination but only after Wendelken asked Council member Ann Daniel three times for her vote.
While council members questioned Witt’s actions, the former police sergeant defended what he did. His attorney also asked if the council members were the appropriate body to hear her client’s appeal of his termination.
“One of the things that truly bothers me is the city of Rincon has placed itself as prosecutor and judge in these matters,” Calhoun said.
Reports and briefings
Council members said Witt did not follow proper procedure when, with then Chief Michael Berry, he obtained personal firearms from another officer at her home. They also charged that Witt did not take part in pass on briefings to officers on a following shift.
Calhoun also took exception to how the punishment was administered to Witt. She said it did not follow the city’s own
policy of progressive sanctions leading to termination.
“If you look at the information provided to Mr. Witt, it’s minimal,” she said. “There are no dates. There’s nothing that states what exactly took place. How that becomes a procedure that you deem justifiable, legal and ethical is beyond me. All that’s been provided is seven incidents. But there’s nothing to substantiate that, other than hearsay.
“We eliminate everything. We eliminate suspension and we jump to termination. That’s not progressive. It’s ‘we’re going to go ahead and terminate him, whether there is basis for it or not.’”
“By themselves, you’re right. They’re probably not ground for termination,” Wendelken said of the incidents. “They’re probably not grounds for demotion. Individually, they may not rise to that level.
“It was a culmination of things that got him terminated,” Wendelken said.
The findings that led to Witt’s dismissal were a result of the city’s investigation into the police department, specifically the actions of Berry and former detective Scott Collins — and Calhoun took exception to the manner the investigation was conducted.
Lee and city attorney Raymond Dickey conducted the probe into the department and presented their findings in two parts last month.
“You’ve got hearsay,” she said. “The officers march into Mr. Dickey’s office and grind their axes on everybody.”
After council members returned from executive session, the discussion between Wendelken and Calhoun grew heated enough for Calhoun to tell the mayor pro tem “You don’t have to snap at me.”
Wendelken said that on Oct. 21, 2008, dispatch tried twice to reach Witt but could not do so for a reported sexual assault. Wendelken said it was discovered that Witt was at the police department and should have been available.
“We decided to take corrective action, and Witt was demoted from sergeant to corporal,” Wendelken said.
Calhoun also defended Witt’s actions concerning an incident involving former officer Jack Beaty where Beaty reportedly suffered an injury.
“Mr. Witt was contacted at 3:30 in the morning, when he was not even on duty,” she said. “In the report itself, there is no indication of an injury to Officer Beaty. At what point in time was he supposed to presume to do something further?”
Removal of weapons
Council members said Witt should have properly documented the firearms he and Berry removed from Officer Rena Brown’s home.
“The law is very fine,” Council member Levi Scott said. “If I came to your home and take property from you, I have to document it and put into evidence.”
But Witt countered that the firearms he and Berry retrieved weren’t considered evidence. He also said Brown asked he and Berry to take the firearms.
“It is her claim that they searched her home illegally and they took the weapons without permission,” Dickey said.
Dickey said Witt should have documented the weapons for a chain of custody and written an incident report.
“My whole take is I was with the chief of police,” Witt said. “If he had needed something documented, I would have gladly done it.”
Witt said he and Berry went to Brown’s house to check on her well-being. Brown had been diagnosed with cancer. Council members said it was reported Brown was suicidal, but Witt said she didn’t appear to be so when he and Berry first went to her house. He said Brown told them she wished she were dead but showed none of the signs of suicidal behavior.
“The chief donated 40 hours of his own sick leave to her,” Witt said. “She couldn’t understand why the city manager wasn’t going to look out for her.”
Witt said he accompanied Berry to Brown’s house as the act of a friend.
“She sent a thank you note to the chief,” he told council members. “Months later, we find out she made allegations we did something illegal.”
Witt said he and Berry were leaving Brown’s home as her daughter arrived from school. They told Brown’s daughter that if there were any problems to call them.
Scott told Witt they should have called the sheriff’s office and the hospital if Brown — who lived outside the city limits — was having suicidal thoughts.
“His job was to call the county and let them know this situation exists,” he said.
“She didn’t threaten suicide,” said Witt. “We took the guns at her request. We did not take them. She gave them to us.”
Wendelken chastised Witt for not following proper procedure, but Witt said that in this case, there was no procedure to follow.
“There is no standard protocol for checking on co-workers,” Witt said.
Wendelken also admonished Witt for not acting as a team player following Berry’s suspension and eventual dismissal.
“Doing reports, checking reports, that’s being a team player,” Wendelken said. “Giving pass on briefings, that’s being a team player.”
“I thought being a team player was doing my job and not being on the bandwagon,” Witt said.
“You were on the Berry bandwagon,” Wendelken responded.
Said Witt: “I’m not going to make up stuff about things I don’t know about.”
Scott said it was still part of Witt’s job to provide the pass on briefings.
“I have some problems. There are too many inconsistencies,” he said. “I’m about tired of lawsuits.”
Calhoun said her client also has always been available to take a polygraph examination, if asked.
“He has been absolutely consistent with what he has said,” Calhoun told council members.