F'ville cop keeps his job, loses his rank

The recent termination of Fayetteville Police Lt. James Miller by Chief Steve Heaton for insubordination has been overturned after an appeal, City Manager Joe Morton said.

That was because Heaton had not been given adequate information upon which to base the termination, Morton said.

Independent hearing officer Jennifer Keaton upheld Heaton’s findings that Miller’s performance was poor and that he failed to follow policy. Though he retains his job, Miller is being demoted.

Keaton, an Atlanta attorney who has worked on both law enforcement and labor issues, conducted Miller’s appeal hearing. Heaton was recently alleged by anonymous letters to have fired the longtime officer for insubordination after the officer would not write a ticket to a fellow officer who had been involved in a traffic accident.

Morton said the city will act on Keaton’s recommendation that Miller be reinstated with a demotion and receive additional training.

Keaton’s report stated that Miller was fired on March 21, and subsequently appealed the termination that was based on failure to follow policy, insubordination and unsatisfactory performance.

The appeal hearing noted that an officer on March 14 was involved in a two-car, non-injury accident. Miller was the supervisor on duty that day and delegated the investigation to an officer who had significant training for investigating and managing traffic accident scenes, Keaton said. The officer involved in the accident told investigators he ran a red light and caused the accident.

Maj. Kevin Gooding in reviewing the work of the investigators said he believed the report was poorly written and contained inadequate details, including the point that the officer who caused the wreck was at fault, Keaton said.

Gooding then advised Miller to issue the officer a citation. Gooding also determined that a second report from other supervisors was also unsatisfactory, Keaton added.

Miller was told by Gooding to issue the citation and subsequently said he was “uncomfortable” issuing it. A review of the supervisor’s report indicated that “no citation was issued pending further investigation” even though Gooding instructed Miller to issue the citation three days earlier.

Gooding then issued the citation to the officer involved in the accident, Keaton’s report said.

Gooding and Heaton met with Miller on March 21. Heaton in that meeting, “... explained to Miller that he intended to issue an adverse action to Lt. Miller for insubordination, failure to follow policy and unsatisfactory performance. Further, the adverse action would be termination based upon the city’s progressive discipline policy and the existence of prior performance problems over the preceding 12 months,” the report said.

“More specifically, the misconduct Chief Heaton identified involved Lt. Miller’s poor investigation of the March 14 accident, which he delegated to another officer contrary to policy, a poorly documented report for the March 14 accident despite multiple and specific instructions for improving the report, a failure to issue a citation as directed by Maj. Gooding, and failure to comply with other instructions and directions from Maj. Gooding.

“In response to this notification, Lt. Miller did not offer any additional information, rebuttal or explanation, but suggested that he believed he could change the chief’s mind,” according to the report.

Keaton said Heaton with no other information provided by Miller proceeded with the adverse action and termination. Miller then appealed the decision the same day and remained a paid employee until the appeal action was decided.

Keaton said the appeal hearing showed that a number of opportunities for effective communication between most of those involved in the investigation was missed.

“As a result of what can only be described as poor communication, Chief Heaton relied upon, and reasonably relied upon, flawed and incomplete information prior to making the decision to terminate the employment of Lt. Miller. Based upon the information Chief Heaton had at the time he made the termination decision, his decision appears to be objectively correct and justified,” Keaton said.

Keaton in her findings said Heaton’s assessment that Miller violated the policy pertaining to vehicular accidents, conducted a shoddy accident investigation and submitted multiple accident reports, despite specific guidance from Gooding, is upheld. What was not upheld was the charge of insubordination, Keaton said.

“The evidence presented at the appeals hearing indicates that the impression of insubordinate conduct certainly existed and was allowed to exist based upon the choices of each officer in this matter. Had just one of these officers been forthright, responsive, and committed to the task, Chief Heaton may not have been led to believe that Lt. Miller was challenging his authority,” said Keaton.

Keaton in her conclusion said she upheld Heaton’s findings that Miller’s performance was poor and inadequate as it pertained to the accident report and investigation and that Miller failed to comply with the policy that supervisors investigate officer-related accidents rather than delegating that function.

But on the matter of insubordination, Keaton did not agree that Miller was insubordinate based on information that was not known to Heaton at the time. As a consequence, the termination was overturned. Keaton also recommended that Miller be demoted to the rank of sergeant and that he be transferred to another shift and be monitored for improvement. Miller is also to write a detailed letter of apology to Heaton.

Heaton was also encouraged to assess available training that relates to supervisory personnel and their responsibilities for accident investigations.

Morton last week said the city supports Keaton’s findings.

Pertaining to the findings of fact, Keaton said Heaton in 2011 instituted a policy stating that vehicular accidents inside city limits would be investigated internally rather than having those investigations conducted by an outside agency as had been done previously.

The policy was implemented even though officers did not necessarily agree with it, Keaton said, adding that feedback was solicited by Heaton at a later meeting but was not forthcoming. Keaton noted that the lack of officers’ follow-up appeared to be due in part to their belief that Heaton was committed to the policy.

Pertaining to other another personnel issue and allegations of high stress and a hostile work environment existing in the department, Morton said those issues are in process of review by an independent hearing officer and that those findings are expected in the coming weeks.