Note: This story was last updated at 11:45 a.m.
After hearing from two dozen residents and a few former officers, the Oak Ridge City Council on Monday agreed to conduct an independent third-party review of turnover and morale in the Police Department. But members rejected a proposal to investigate the relationship between the police chief and city manager, and they declined to look into possible violations related to an order of protection issued against the police chief in Blount County in 2012 and dismissed in 2013.
The outcome appeared to generally please all sides, even if the process used to get there didn’t. It seemed to be a largely peaceful resolution to two weeks of divisive community debate and intense public scrutiny.
“I think we’ve taken a step in the right direction for addressing the concerns within the Oak Ridge Police Department,” said City Council member Trina Baughn, who first raised the issue publicly in a January 25 email about the turnover rate and other ORPD issues.
“I think it was a fair outcome, and one that came about as a result of the process working the way it was actually supposed to,” said Tasha Blakney, attorney for Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi, the subject of most of the allegations raised during the past two weeks.
The resolution to conduct an independent third-party review of the ORPD turnover was proposed by City Council member Kelly Callison during a five-hour meeting Monday night. It passed 7-0 after being amended to include a study of morale issues and administrative policies.
In two separate 2-5 votes earlier, Council rejected requests by Baughn to investigate the relationship between Akagi and City Manager Mark Watson before the police chief was hired in Oak Ridge in 2011—and to determine whether there were any violations under the order of protection issued in Blount County at the request of Akagi’s ex-wife about three years ago and dismissed two years ago.
Later in the meeting, Oak Ridge City Council member Charlie Hensley withdrew a motion to reprimand Baughn for the way she has publicly handled the concerns about the Police Department.
Blakney declined to discuss some of the allegations and questions raised by Baughn and five former employees of the Oak Ridge Police Department: Chief David Beams, Lieutenant Jack Mansfield, Sergeant Philip Nall, and officers Chris Bayless and Chris Carden. Among the concerns were the chief’s personality and leadership style, his treatment of employees, questions about promotions within the department, and alleged policy violations.
The Council did not directly address those allegations. They could have been considered under Baughn’s original request for an investigation.
“I don’t see any reason to respond to some of the underlying requests,” Blakney said. “Those efforts were voted down. I don’t want to move backward.”
She said Baughn’s requests included some “unfortunate personal attacks.”
Callison said a review of Police Department turnover could “tease out” other issues. The review is expected to be completed within 30 days of a firm being selected. The report will be delivered to City Council and the city manager.
One former officer described it as the best outcome that could be hoped for. But he said he was reserving judgement.
There appears to be at least some discontent in the Police Department, although it’s not clear how widespread that is. Several officers attended the Monday night meeting, although no current officers spoke.
“I think their presence spoke volumes,” Baughn said.
Christen Thomas, wife of a police officer, told Council that officers are afraid to come forward for fear of retaliation.
“Sweeping this under the rug is not the answer,” she said.
Blakney said Akagi welcomes the review of ORPD turnover and morale.
“He welcomes the opportunity to make internal improvements where improvements can be made,” she said.
Blakney said the chief’s leadership has been effective. He’s brought in $1.3 million in grant money, and the crime rate is down, by more than 50 percent in some cases, she said.
That was a theme echoed throughout the night by those who spoke in favor of the chief: The crime rate is down drastically, they said, drug houses aren’t the problems they once were, schools are safer, and the police presence and response times are better.
“He literally has cut the crime rate in half,” resident Chuck Agle said.
“There’s been a huge decrease in crime,” Callison said. “There’s been a huge improvement in policing in our city.”
But others disputed whether the chief deserves sole credit for the lower crime rate. That’s a number that’s down across the country, Nall said. “You can’t attribute that to one person,” he said.
Residents who called for an investigation suggested they were suspicious that “something is wrong” or expressed concern about the order of protection, among other issues.
“We’ve got some dirty linen, and we better wash it,” resident Andy Marathe said.
Voting in favor of Baughn’s request to investigate the relationship between Akagi and Watson were Baughn and City Council member Rick Chinn. All others opposed it.
“We need to be careful about how we present this community,” Chinn said. But, “Just to clear the names, we need to take a look at these issues.”
The investigation would have determined any ties between Akagi and Watson in Lawrence, Kansas, and would have asked, essentially, whether the city unnecessarily spent about $25,000 to hire a search firm to find a new police chief, only to have Watson hire a friend.
“This is about the money that was spent,” resident Linda Mabry said.
Watson and Akagi have both denied that they had met previously, and that account was backed up by a city staff member who reportedly introduced the two.
Those critical of Baughn’s request asked how much it was going to cost now to investigate whether the city wasted money earlier. They expressed dismay at her desire to investigate the hiring some four years ago when it included input from residents and a citizens’ committee, as well as City Council support and a public forum.
“I think this resolution is a waste of our time,” Callison said. “I think this is a distraction.”
Hensley said there was no suggestion that anything illegal had occurred even if the two men had known each other.
Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Smith was involved in the search for a new police chief after Beams retired in March 2011.
“This was an extremely public process,” she said. “The suggestion that there was some sort of ‘hanky-panky’…is extremely hard for me to accept given my experience on the front lines. This is an attack on good people.”
“He was the best candidate,” said Joe Lee, who was involved with the citizens’ committee.
Before the new chief was hired, Smith said, the crime rate was a top citizen concern as were drug houses. That’s changed, she said.
“Mr. Akagi has done an exceptional job,” Smith said. “We no longer have the crime issues that we had.”
Voting in favor of the investigation of possible violations related to the order of protection were Baughn and Hope. All other Council members voted “no.”
Two Council members said the police chief was never prohibited from carrying a weapon—Baughn had raised a question about that—and others said any alleged violations would probably be the concern of Blount County authorities, where the order of protection was issued, and not Oak Ridge’s.
Lee called the request for an investigation “disgraceful.”
“This is a witch hunt,” he said.
But a few other residents said they were concerned.
“I don’t want a chief of police who has gone so far as to have an order of protection taken out against him,” said Tracy Stout Powers.
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