Note: This story was last updated at 12:30 p.m. March 30.
Despite calls for an investigation, the Oak Ridge City Council on Friday approved a proposal from a University of Tennessee agency to review—rather than investigate—the Oak Ridge Police Department, focusing on turnover, morale, and administrative policies.
A series of motions by City Council member Trina Baughn, who has pushed hardest for an investigation of the ORPD and its police chief, were rejected. Among other things, Baughn’s proposals would have required all Police Department employees to spend at least 10 minutes with the investigator, regardless of whether they wanted to say anything; sought to interview all former workers who have left since May 2011, when Police Chief Jim Akagi was hired; given those interviewed a chance to participate in a “no confidence” vote against the chief; and look into Akagi’s previous history, including his prior employment with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Council also rejected a motion by Baughn to investigate the allegations included in a grievance filed by a former police officer and claims made in letters by former officers.
The 30-day review that was approved Friday was first proposed as a general concept by Oak Ridge City Council member Kelly Callison during a February meeting, with more detail added since then.
The review would use Rex Barton of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service at the University of Tennessee. A few people, including Baughn, suggested that MTAS and Barton could have a conflict of interest.
“If we choose MTAS…they have ties to the City of Oak Ridge,” Baughn said. “The zeal with which you are advocating for Mr. Barton is disturbing…It really reeks of a desire to control the outcome.”
But others disputed the conflict-of-interest claim, and Callison said Council was free to accept or reject his proposal.
“I would like to believe that this is a very professional organization,” Callison said of Barton and MTAS, which receives state funding but no direct funding from the City of Oak Ridge. “I quite frankly was impressed with his background and his approach to doing the work.”
“At some point, we’ve got to decide who is sufficiently independent” and not “play games” with a conflict of interest that doesn’t exist, Oak Ridge Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Smith said. “I’ve seen MTAS as really the default choice for doing this kind of work.”
Callison said Barton has more than 18 years of experience as a policeman and 20 as an MTAS consultant, and he’s conducted more than 50 similar reviews across Tennessee. He said the review wouldn’t cost the city any money, and interviews would be conducted off-site, helping ensure there wouldn’t be “blowback” on anyone who is interviewed.
Several Council members who have worked with or talked to Barton said they were impressed by his professionalism.
“We need to move forward to get some closure for the police personnel concerned about their work conditions,” Smith said. “I think we have a winning proposition in the proposal from MTAS, and I strongly support it.”
The review was approved in a 5-1-1 vote during a 2.5-hour special meeting on Friday. Voting “yes” were Callison and Smith, Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch, and City Council members Rick Chinn and Charlie Hensley.
Baughn voted “no,” and City Council member Chuck Hope abstained.
A motion that said there is merit in placing the police chief on administrative leave also failed. Baughn cast the only vote in favor. Baughn, who raised questions about whether the chief is vindictive or has outbursts, cast the only vote in favor. She said her proposal, which she added is common across the nation, would help avoid unfair influence
But all other Council members voted “no.” Under the Oak Ridge City Charter, City Council can’t directly put the police chief on leave but could direct the city manager to do so.
Smith said she had not heard any allegations that would require that the chief be placed on leave. If the chief remains on the job, she said, the worst that could happen is that he will be nice to officers, which is not a sufficient reason to remove him.
Some took issue with Baughn’s proposals and process and accused her of creating a “circus” that is costing the city time and money.
“To me, this is more of a character assassination and a witch hunt,” Hensley said. “We are not maverick individuals out there trying to justify maverick positions and then getting mad and taking our ball and going home.”
There’s been too much bias, too much misinformation, and too much hearsay, Hensley said.
“I think we’re wrong trying to bring up personal things from his past,” businessman Len Hart said of Baughn’s proposal to investigate Akagi’s history. “If I was to investigate your background, what would I find?”
Baughn continued to insist on an investigation.
“We’re misleading the public if we go down the road of a review,” she said. “Our words and our deeds do not align with what we committed to do back in February.”
Council voted 7-0 in February to approve an independent third-party review of the turnover, morale, and administrative policies in the ORPD. At the time, the outcome appeared to generally please all sides. But the unanimity was short-lived.
Since then, Baughn has transcribed and highlighted portions of that meeting where the words “investigator” or “investigation” were used. She says a review is more “benign” than an investigation.
But Callison said he thinks his February resolution was very clear and broad in scope. Callison has said he thinks a review could “tease out” other issues.
Christen Thomas, who is married to a police officer, said she is quite certain that many officers that she knows won’t speak to MTAS.
“My request to you is to vote appropriately,” Thomas said. “MTAS will not be an appropriate vote.”
William N. Kain, president of the Knox County chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, said he was not happy that no proposals other the MTAS review were considered.
“This is not a good plan,” Kain said. “The City Council let its police officers down.”
Kain has objected to using a random sample of officers to conduct the interviews.
“We feel a complete and thorough investigation can be completed in a 30-day window speaking to all officers and civilian staff members at ORPD, and a failure to speak with all members of the police department will equate to a failure to fully review the critical issues concerning our members,” he said in a March 3 letter to City Council. “Randomly selecting officers might cause key information to be overlooked, and any officer wishing to speak with the MTAS investigator that is not randomly selected will be easily identifiable and more likely to face retaliation.”
Kain has also said Barton is directly connected to the ORPD through the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police through that organization’s accreditation program. Barton worked on that program for years, it’s managed by the TACP, and Akagi is on that organization’s board, Kain said. But others say Barton’s work on the accreditation is a positive rather than a negative, and Hensley raised a question about how long ago that work was done.
Baughn had suggested the city solicit “fair proposals,” rather than use MTAS.
“The city is flush with cash,” Baughn said. “It’s just very disturbing that we’re placing emphasis on doing something free as opposed to doing something that is right.”
But others argued that the expense is important, MTAS and Barton are highly qualified and very professional, Barton takes confidentiality seriously, and they didn’t want to delay.
The ORPD review approved last month followed an earlier call by Baughn to open an investigation into the police chief in three areas. But two of Baughn’s proposals were rejected in 2-5 votes last month, and the Oak Ridge City Council unanimously approved the third-party review proposed by Callison.
The calls for an investigation or review started after a late January email by Baughn. She expressed concern about what she suggested is a high turnover rate in the Oak Ridge Police Department and allegations contained in a grievance filed by former ORPD Officer Christopher Bayless as well as those contained in three anonymous emails and what she’s heard from former officers.
That led to letters to the editor by several former Oak Ridge officers, including former Police Chief David Beams.
Thomas said she believes she speaks for everyone when she says the ORPD does not have a good work environment. But Hensley said he has had six police officers approach him to tell him that they support what he’s doing.
Several Council members took offense at a suggestion that they didn’t respect officers. Hope said he has the “utmost respect” for every police officer, as well as school teachers, city staff members, and others. Hensley said he has regularly advocated for more officers and more equipment for police. Callison, who has served in the Coast Guard, said he has commanded personnel carrying guns, participated in search and rescue and drug interdiction missions, and he understands the job.
“I understand where you’re coming from,” Callison said. “I understand the business.”
Baughn and Chinn requested Friday’s special meeting earlier this month.
Here are the votes on five of the seven motions by Baughn:
- Require all ORPD employees to spend at least 10 minutes with an investigator, even if they choose not to speak, to help avoid a “fear of retaliation”
- Yes—Baughn, Chinn, Hope
- No—Callison, Gooch, Hensley, Smith
“You’re forcing people to participate when they may not choose to participate,” Hensley said.
“I think it’s very clear that no one is being forced to participate,” former City Council member Anne Garcia Garland countered. “They’re simply being required to show up. They don’t have to talk.”
- Require the investigator to try to interview all ORPD employees who have left since May 2011, when Akagi was hired
- Yes—Baughn, Chinn
- No—Callison, Gooch, Hensley, Hope, Smith
- Grant all interviewees a chance to express a “no confidence” vote in the chief and to administrators underneath him
- Yes—Baughn, Chinn
- No—Callison, Gooch, Hensley, Hope, Smith
- Investigate the previous history of Akagi, including at the DEA
- No—Callison, Chinn, Gooch, Hensley, Hope, Smith
- Investigate the allegations contained in a grievance filed by a former police officer and claims in letters from former officers
- Yes—Baughn, Hope
- No—Callison, Chinn, Gooch, Hensley, Smith
More information will be added as it becomes available.