published Sunday, February 6th, 2011

City ordered to rehire officer

The Chattanooga Police Department named Mickel Hoback "Officer of the Year" in 2007. Two years later, the Iraq war veteran was fired for having post-traumatic stress disorder.

Last week, the Hamilton County Chancery Court ordered Chattanooga to give him his job back with back pay.

City attorneys have 30 days from Tuesday to file a response to Chancellor Jeffrey Atherton's decision. Calls to the city attorney's office were not returned Friday.

A separate $1.5 million federal lawsuit could bring the U.S. Department of Labor into the case to prosecute Chattanooga for violating the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Act, according to Phillip Lawrence, Hoback's attorney in both suits. The law, among other things, covers civilian employer conduct concerning military personnel.

The initial U.S. District Court filing, which since has been amended, also alleged that then-Police Chief Freeman Cooper fired Hoback in retaliation for Hoback's comments to the media in 2008 about take-home patrol car changes for police who lived outside the county.

Reached Thursday night, Hoback referred comments to his attorneys, saying both cases are ongoing.

Lawrence said the claim of retaliation later was stricken from the original complaint. He took the retaliation charge out because it complicated matters and he wanted to focus on the other aspects of the case, he said.

Back from iraq

Court documents show that Hoback was deployed to Iraq with the Tennessee Army National Guard's 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Upon returning home, he saw counselors at the Chattanooga Vet Center for two years and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Counselors said he was improving with treatment, court documents show.

But Hoback's sleep medications were making him sick, so his Vet Center counselor, Mike Bearden, sent him to the Veterans Affairs Outpatient Clinic in Chattanooga to have the medication adjusted.

During his Aptil 2009 meeting with the clinic psychiatrist, Dr. Estella Acosta, she decided that Hoback needed to be admitted to the VA clinic in Murfreesboro as a suicide risk.

Bearden, reached by phone Friday, said when Hoback came to him after the meeting with Acosta, he immediately contacted the doctor.

"I called over there and said, 'What's going on here?'" he said. "I've seen him for two years. He's not a suicide risk."

Acosta no longer works at the Chattanooga clinic and couldn't be reached for comment.

Hoback asked Bearden what he should do, and the counselor told him to report to the Murfreesboro facility. While driving to Murfreesboro, Hoback learned that Acosta had called police, who issued a "be on the lookout" order.

He checked into the clinic and was released the next day. According to court documents, the lead psychiatrist in Murfreesboro called Bearden and asked why Hoback even had been sent to the clinic because it was obvious he wasn't a suicide risk.

Cooper put Hoback on administrative leave the same day. He was fired in July 2009.

Attorney Jerry Tidwell, who helped represent Hoback in the Chancery Court case, said Friday that he was "real pleased for Mike."

"Had that doctor at the VA not screwed up and sent him to the hospital ... this wouldn't have happened," Tidwell said.

On the force

Court documents show that Hoback joined the Chattanooga Police Department in 2000 and deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005. He served as a .50-caliber machine gunner on numerous combat missions.

Hoback was assigned to the Quick Reaction Force, a rotating, on-call team that reacts immediately to explosions, attacks or incidents. His unit patrolled in Balad Ruz, a small village in Diyala Province, which The New York Times described as "one of the most dangerous provinces in Iraq until 2008."

A few months after his deployment ended, Hoback was back at the police department. In 2007, he was named "Officer of the Year."

Throughout his police service, Hoback received either "effective" or "strong" reviews from his supervisors. Sgt. David Frye, his immediate supervisor, told the City Council's appeal board that Hoback was "one of the top five officers" he had worked with in 24 years of law enforcement.

But in the summer of 2008, Hoback spoke to the media about a patrol-car policy change by the city government. Although he worked in Chattanooga, Hoback lived in Bradley County. The new policy required officers who lived outside the county to park their patrol cars at the police headquarters on Amnicola Highway rather than take them to the county line at the end of their shift.

Hoback, who had been cleared by the police information officer to talk with the media, said he disagreed with the new policy. After the story ran, he was told the police chief was "displeased" with him for what he said.

After the April 2009 incident with Acosta and the Murfreesboro clinic, Cooper had Hoback undergo a mental evaluation with a city-contracted psychiatrist. The doctor deemed Hoback "unfit for duty" after a few hours of testing and interviews, court documents said.

Hoback saw two more doctors after Cooper told him he no longer could work as a police officer. Both doctors said he could return to duty, court documents said.

Cooper told Hoback he could apply for another job, citing a state law and Peace Officer Training Standards rules stating that police could not serve if they had mental illnesses.

Both Lawrence and Tidwell pointed out that the state law has been challenged and that Tennessee agreed in a 2003 federal consent order not to enforce the state law because it violated federal law.

Hoback appealed his firing to the City Council later that year, which voted 2-1 against him. Shortly afterward, Hoback filed both lawsuits.

Should Mickel Hoback get his Chattanooga police job back?
about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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jpo3136 said...

Probably half the Police force has some degree of PTSD, just from working here in Chattanooga. Firing a Police officer over shellshock would have put our entire force out of business. We need a better explanation.

It is absolutely normal for Soldiers who deploy to have some degree of PTSD. Statistically, 15% out of every group who deploys, every time they deploy, will have some readjustment difficulties. Getting PTSD is a no fault situation. Firing an officer because of it is a weak and unethical response.

In order for PTSD to be, as stated above "a mental illness", the person who is suffering from it must be so disabled that they cannot care for themselves. Look at VA disability standards for PTSD.

If the Police officer who had PTSD was actually so disabled that he would be counted as "mentally ill," then he wouldn't have been able to put his pants on to get to the meeting to receive the word that he'd been fired.

VA evaluations also require periodic re-evaluations. Diagnoses don't stand forever. Disability for mental illness, is, by definition, a temporary condition.

Even if he needed to be hospitalized for an acute condition; it's common. It's part of the price of sending people to war.

And, it's part of any combative profession: including policing.

It's surprising that the Police's leaders would react this way solely to a report of a problem. Where's their follow up and evaluation on this matter?

Didn't make the effort, did they?

Reinstate the officer. Shellshock is normal. Turning your back on someone just because they have it is low. We don't have time for ignorance.

It sounds like the employers lack basic experience with trauma and evaluating and leading personnel. We better hope this is one bad call and not indicative of how we normally handle problems. As a matter of routine patrolling, it's likely that this same problem will plague a substantive percentage of our Police force.

We need a better answer than just firing people because of PTSD. This sounds like a weak solution to a common problem.

February 6, 2011 at 12:56 a.m.
cannonball said...

Thank you for your service officer Hobak.

February 6, 2011 at 9:47 a.m.
whoback0185 said...

Being this man's parents, we know he should be reinstated!We have known him longer than anyone and know that he is an outstanding police officer. We only hope that the rest of the Chattanooga Police Department is as capable as Mike. Shame on Cooper for making this type of judgement on such an outstanding police officer.Good Luck Mike

February 6, 2011 at 9:54 a.m.
zwickau said...

PTSD has come to be an overly used diagnosis. If the city is hiring military personnel with obvious mental illnesses and placing them in such vulnerable positions over citizens then maybe they need to change their hiring practices.

February 6, 2011 at 10:31 a.m.
mella_yella said...

Hoback must have said or implied something for Dr. Acosta to feel the need to label him as possible suicidal and immediately call the police dept. then insist he immediately be hospitalized. Cops are in very sensitive positions where they get to determine the life, death, freedom or bondage of the average citizen. With that kind of power, control and influence any implications of someone in such a sensitive and powerful position shouldn't be taken lightly. If Cooper was out for revenge then he was wrong. However, if this individual was suffering from some level of PTSD to the point that he might be suicidal or homicidal then he and any others like him should be on the police force. The city should review Hoback's medical and mental records and either fight and stick to their decision based on their findings or pay the man and give him his job back if he is deem to be fit for duty. I also agree with the poster who suggested PTSD is being used as an excuse and scapegoate by individuals returning from the war who would have screwed up and committed bad things regardless.

February 6, 2011 at 11:26 a.m.
joecrash1 said...

Hoback should stay long enough to vest his retirement, then get out, giving the City of Chattanooga, especially Ron Littlebrain, an IN-YOUR-FACE! I hope he gets judgment against them on the other actions. What a crappy way to treat a veteran.

February 6, 2011 at 11:51 a.m.
hmgreen said...

While I do understand anyone being diagnosed with PTSD having to be monitored in case Suicide is a concern it is apparent in the story that Officer Hoback was very proactive about recieving the treatment he needed. Being punished for his condition after serving his country so honorably is WRONG. Yes he should get his job back on a silver platter with a great big appology to go along with it.

For those saying PTSD is an excuse, shame on you. I had a very dear friend who served 4 tours in IRAQ and saw things that you could never imagine. He committed suicide after waiting 5 months to see a therapist. He had seen therapists outside of the military appointed one and they loaded him up on different meds that only intensfied his depression. I will never forget how he told me that when they come home everyone expects them to just fall into normal life. While having lunch with him a balloon popped during a bday party and he hit the floor instantly. He was humiliated. He never thought of doing harm to others but he, in the end, did harm to himself. This officer sought help and was, like I said, proactive in getting that help. He deserves respect.

February 6, 2011 at 11:56 a.m.
belizianese said...

A very major problem with police being hired straight from teh military or are parttime military in America is they've come to operate more like an emotionaly unstable occupying force that goes in to destablize a country rather than peace officer assigned to keeping the peace and upholdin the laws of the land. Things need fixing on that end for a better more stablized America.

February 6, 2011 at 12:45 p.m.
GARRS said...

It has been an ongoing problem with soldiers for 100s of years. They get shell shocked, and the military does not follow through, leaving them to the veterans hospitals to care for.

It is something though, the military DID pay for in extra pay, that was given monthly. Soldiers in combat zones, get hardship pay, they get combat pay, that is extra on top of what is now today a very good wage.

Why do I think that this article is a potential slander against hiring veterans to do important jobs? Ill just about bet that his PTSD was diagnosed long before he was hired as a policeman, and there again, it was his legal right not to share his medical information during his hire.

You all set up the rules, to keep yoursleves from getting sued, not that you pay anyways, but dont it piss you off when the law actually works for a soldier or citizen? I always LMAO when the system takes one.

February 6, 2011 at 2:38 p.m.
nfpsteve said...

I think its great that this officer is rehired, And there are several other good men that were forced to leave before cooper fired them , for very poor reasons. , they should also get a good lawyer and review their job back pay.

February 6, 2011 at 3:05 p.m.
dave said...

First as a vet myself I find this as a very poor way to say thanks for serving your country. When you look at the the other "stuff" that has gone on with the CPD for the last few years it is just amazing. Remember the cop that shoved down the elderly door greeter? They didn't FIRE him, until he made such an ass out of himself they HAD to do something. The truth is this firing was retaliation for remarks made about the take home car policy. What about this officers freedom of speech? I guess under the Littlefield-Cooper administration it is NOT ALLOWED.

February 6, 2011 at 4:25 p.m.
B_Truthful said...

If the average mentally unstable citizen shouldn't be allowed to carry a gun then certainly a potentially mentally unstable cop shouldn't be allowed either. These days too many cops are coming onto the force with serious and severe mental and emotional issues that often requires strong medication, but they're hired anyway even when against the suggestion of pyschological findings that they shouldn't be hired. That's a danger to them, their fellow officers and most certainly to the citizens they might encounter on a daily basis. They usually end up costing the local government and taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees.

February 6, 2011 at 6:11 p.m.
B_Truthful said...

What are all of you going to say when one of these PTSD cops go postal and shoot up an entire precinct or go on a rampage shooting up and killing citizens? Not to mention other similar close cause have already happened in other parts of the nation where an individual whose psychological warned they were not fit for duty but the department hired them anyway. You'll be the first to want heads to roll saying the individual should have never been hired in the first place.

February 6, 2011 at 6:18 p.m.
xyzyra said...

GARRS in the 1960s I worked at a facility that cared for soldiers and other military persons suffering from shellshock and other mental and emotional illnesses. Believe me, none were stable enough to carry a weapon of any kind. And certainly not stable enough to become police officers. We had to keep anything that could remotely possibly be used as a weapon out of their reach. Once an aide was crushed between the bed and the wall by one of her shellshock patients. It took several male aides to subdue him enough so the rest of us could get to the crushed aide.

Most military persons returning from war suffering from shell shock were placed in mental institution and other healthcare facilities where they worked puzzled or played board games all day. They certainly weren't placed in such highly life changing situations as police officers often find themselves.

February 6, 2011 at 7:22 p.m.
cornmeal said...

It is very sad that the City of Chattanooga simply "cast out" a member of the police department for incurring a service related disability. I certainly hope that Officer Hoback is reinstated soon and can resume his service to the community.

February 6, 2011 at 11:39 p.m.
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