Warnings to certain Cleveland, Tenn., police officers against “dating minors, porn on city-owned phones, consumption of alcoholic beverages while off-duty, snorting crushed pills [and] oral sex in public” in May 2008, didn’t include enough specifics to warrant an investigation, the city’s police chief says.
Chief Wes Snyder and his top assistant this week have denied they failed to investigate allegations in a timely manner that some officers were involved in prescription pill abuse and sex with underage girls.
Now an internal police memo from May 29, 2008, raises questions about how hard police brass tried to find out what their officers were doing.
Snyder still insists there wasn’t enough information to begin an investigation.
“We had no victims, no proof to act on,” Snyder said in a email Friday after the Times Free Press sent him a copy of the memo.
Chattanooga Times Free Press Managing Editor Alison Gerber said the newspaper stands behind the reporting.
“The Times Free Press stands by the reporter and the story,” she said. “This memo lends further credence to the report.”
Snyder and others have said top police in Cleveland didn’t know whether allegations of drug abuse and sex with minors were true before an officer was shot and wounded by another officer at a pill party in December 2008. An investigation into the shooting brought in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and led to the indictment of two officers on charges of having sex with 14- and 16-year-old girls.
But the memo that turned up in the internal affairs investigation of the shooting indicates police brass had some fairly specific information on possible misconduct.
The memo by Assistant Chief Gary Hicks, on Cleveland Police Department stationery, detailed a meeting that Hicks conducted for officers Jon Hammons, Bill Higdon and Thomas. Officer Dennis Hughes was asked to attend but was absent.
According to the memo, the officers’ supervisors, Sgt. Matt Jenkins, Lt. Danny Chastain, Lt. Steve Tyson and Lt. Lamar Anderson, also were present, along with police Capt. Wesley Dilbeck, Capt. Tommy McClain and Cleveland Personnel Director Jeff Davis.
According to the memo, “No accusations were made; however, the officers were warned about unbecoming and unacceptable behavior including, but not limited to, dating minors, porn on City-owned phones, consumption of alcoholic beverages while off-duty, snorting crushed pills, oral sex in public and running from other law enforcement agencies.”
The memo notes that Hughes’ supervisor, Tyson, was told to “make [him] aware of the warnings given during the meeting.”
However, none of the warnings actually was spoken aloud, Hicks said last month while testifying in an employment lawsuit filed by a fired Cleveland police detective.
In sworn testimony on Nov. 17 in Hamilton County Circuit Court, Hicks said he wrote the warning on a whiteboard but did not speak or ask questions. He said those in the room nodded their heads but did not speak.
Snyder on Wednesday assailed Times Free Press reporter Todd South’s coverage of Hicks’ testimony, calling it “grossly inaccurate” and “totally irresponsible.”
On Friday, Snyder reiterated in his email that “Hicks spoke to them about rumors and off-duty behavior. When the shooting occurred in December, we had facts to act on.”
On Thursday, Hicks put out a statement saying that, during the May meeting, “there were no facts or evidence, at that time, to support the rumors” and that the department acted “once facts supported the rumor.”
Eventually, Hughes and Thomas pleaded guilty to having sex with 14- and 16-year-old girls on multiple occasions. Thomas also pleaded guilty to forgery and statutory rape.
Thomas was sentenced to six years and is incarcerated at the Southeastern Regional Correctional Facility in Bledsoe County. Hughes pleaded guilty to aggravated statutory rape and aggravated assault, court records show, and was placed on probation.
Under Tennessee law, anyone who suspects that a child is being abused or neglected is required to report to the Division of Family and Children’s Services, which will decide whether to investigate. Failing to report suspected abuse is a crime under state law.
Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...