Note: This story was last updated at 9:35 a.m. April 20.
The review of the Oak Ridge Police Department will be extensive, but it’s not clear yet who will be interviewed, an official said Friday.
The proposal submitted by the Municipal Technical Advisory Service and approved by the Oak Ridge City Council in March called for interviewing a randomly selected group of police department employees. It also called for interviewing other city employees and officers and possibly talking to community leaders not directly employed by the city.
But some have expressed concern that others who want to speak, including former officers and city residents, might not be able to under the limited 30-day review and random selection proposed by MTAS.
“These men deserve to be heard, all of them,” said Christen Thomas, wife of Oak Ridge Police Department Officer John Thomas.
The independent MTAS review will use Police Management Consultant Rex Barton, a former administrative captain for the Athens, Tennessee, Police Department. MTAS is part of the Institute for Public Service at the University of Tennessee.
On Friday, IPS Information Specialist Susan Robertson said she wasn’t sure who Barton, who was out of town and not available for comment, might interview. Oak Ridge Today asked whether the list might include former officers (a few of them have been critics of the current police chief), or the chief himself.
“He (Barton) plans on it being a very extensive review and will talk to everyone who he needs to talk to who wants to have a say,” Robertson said.
On Monday, two current police officers said every officer should be able to talk to Barton. They said they were making progress or were guardedly optimistic after a Monday night City Council meeting, when Council members suggested that those who want to speak to Barton could give their name to City Attorney Ken Krushenski, who could then forward it to Barton or Margaret Norris at MTAS. Since then, the city has posted contact information for Norris on its website.
After the Monday meeting, though, former ORPD employee Philip Nall, who retired in 2012, said he offered to provide input into the MTAS review but was told that there are no current plans to talk to retirees, although he will be notified if that changes.
“Despite what was discussed at the City Council meeting, retirees (and I assume any former employee) will not be allowed to speak with MTAS,” Nall said in a Friday email. “It seems to me there are no guidelines for this investigation, and thus, as I stated at the podium, it will be a farce.”
Robertson said MTAS is limited in what it can say about the review because it is an ongoing process, but she pointed out that Barton has done reviews of this type for “many departments across the state.” Oak Ridge City Council member Kelly Callison has said Barton has conducted some 50 similar reviews across Tennessee.
During a special meeting on March 27, City Council rejected a motion by Council member Trina Baughn to require all Police Department employees to spend at least 10 minutes with the investigator, regardless of whether they wanted to say anything. The concern among those who rejected that motion was that they didn’t want force people to participate.
During that meeting, Council member Charlie Hensley suggested that a solution might be an “answer in the middle,” between required participation and the random sample. But it wasn’t in the form of a motion and was not included in the resolution adopted by Council.
Two current officers spoke at the City Council meeting this past Monday night. It was the first time current officers have discussed the issue publicly.
John Thomas, an Oak Ridge resident, said he has been an ORPD officer since 1997, and the turnover is “the worst that I’ve ever seen.” He said 33 employees have left in the past 3.5 years, or about one every six weeks.
“I’m alarmed,” Thomas said.
He said there are only three patrol officers that have more than 10 years experience, and the division is “running short.”
Some officers are leaving to go to neighboring agencies for lower pay and less benefits, Thomas said.
“I feel that our turnover crisis will only get worse if something meaningful doesn’t occur,” Thomas said.
Officer Kyle Scott, a Clinton resident, said he has worked for ORPD for almost four years, and out of a 60-man department, he’s already been there longer than half of those in the patrol division.
“That should raise some serious concern,” Scott said. “If things don’t change, I won’t be here another four years.”
Like Nall, Scott is skeptical of the review.
“Given the way things are going and this investigation…I don’t have any faith in it,” Scott said. “I know a lot of other officers that feel the same.”
So far, the calls for an investigation or review have not included specific allegations or claims made by current officers, although they have included statements made in emails, a grievance, and letters to the editor from four or five former officers, former Police Chief David Beams, and two anonymous writers.
Thomas said current officers can’t discuss the specific “nuts and bolts.” But they can comment on matters of public concern as long as it’s not disruptive and not a personal complaint, he said.
Generally speaking, Thomas said, there is an issue with turnover, morale, and how policies are applied. MTAS is expected to review all three.
In February, attorney Tasha Blakney said Oak Ridge Police Chief Jim Akagi denied any wrongdoing related to the concerns that had been raised about the Police Department and his leadership.
The City of Oak Ridge has a grievance process in place for employees, and a few people have raised questions about why, given the reported working conditions in the ORPD, no complaints have bubbled up to the Personnel Advisory Board, which can hear discipline appeals that have filtered up through a department and the city manager. In February, several officials said the PAB hadn’t met in one year or more.
Thomas said officers can’t discuss internal grievances.
Under the City Charter, the Personnel Advisory Board can also “investigate and make recommendations and reports to the council and manager on improvements in conditions of municipal employment and on significant violations of the principles of sound personnel administration,” although it’s not clear if that authority could have been used in this case.
The MTAS review approved in March was called for under a different section of the charter, which was updated by referendum in November 2010. That section—the “Powers to subpoena” section—gives council, which generally can’t get involved in personnel matters except through the city manager, the authority to use a resolution to “make investigations into the affairs of the city and the conduct of all city departments, offices, boards, commissions, committees, and agencies.” To do so, Council may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony, and require the production of evidence.
Asked how widespread the concerns are in the ORPD, Thomas estimated that at least 35 officers and administrators have concerns.
Scott said officers only want the community to be better.
“There are a lot of good people working for this police department,” said John Criswell of ORPD. And, it has the potential to be phenomenal, he said.
Much of the attention has focused on the department’s leadership, particularly the police chief, who started in Oak Ridge close to four years ago. Asked about possible outcomes, Criswell said his personal opinion is that “everybody deserves a second chance.”
He said the chief made a lot of good changes when he first arrived in Oak Ridge.
“He promoted me, and I appreciate that,” Criswell said.
As for what has happened and might happen next, “we all make mistakes,” Criswell said. But, “everybody is able to change,” he said.
More information will be added as it becomes available.