City of Collegedale, police chief and city manager face $2.4 million lawsuit by three fired police officers

The clock tower in front of Collegedale City Hall is pictured Wednesday, March 20, 2019, in Collegedale, Tennessee.

Three Collegedale, Tennessee, officers who were unexpectedly fired in September filed a $2.4 million federal lawsuit on Thursday against the city, its police chief and city manager.

Collegedale city spokeswoman Bridgett Raper said the city has not yet been served and that it does not comment on pending litigation.

On Sept. 6, officers David Schilling and Kolby Duckett and Cpl. David Holloway were called into a meeting toward the end of their shift and, within 10 seconds, were told they were all being terminated, the Times Free Press previously reported. There were no termination papers to sign and a human resources representative was not present.

According to the lawsuit, the officers were also told their health insurance would be discontinued despite the premium having been paid through the month of September.

The next day, a Saturday, city administrators issued a separation notice and noted the reason for termination was "conduct unbecoming of an officer," according to the lawsuit. That alleged misconduct was not clarified.

Documents obtained by the Times Free Press revealed the last entry in each officer's disciplinary file - which is separate from their personnel file - shows a lengthy reprimand for allegedly not regularly checking on houses that were on the department's "watch list," something police Sgt. Michael Westfield called a failure "to comply with my orders."

A "watch list" is a list of houses that are under surveillance either for suspicious activity or because the resident asked for police to check on it while they were out of town.

The officers' attorneys, Janie Parks Varnell and Bryan Hoss, argued their clients were fired for helping the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in its inquiry into an alleged quota system at the department.

As early as 2015, the lawsuit states, city administration began documenting shift productivity of its police officers and began issuing directives regarding productivity, setting a certain number of activities that needed to be achieved on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.

"What was once an 'unspoken rule' about the emphasis on traffic stops and arrests that stemmed from traffic stops became a department directive in or around December 2018," the lawsuit states.

In a separate officer's disciplinary file obtained by the Times Free Press, a "supervisor notes entry" documents a discussion about "methods to bring the shift numbers up to par" in August 2015.

Sgt. Jamie Heath, who was assigned to third shift patrol, writes, "The Chief and I had been observing for several months the fact that the shift numbers were extremely low in comparison with other shifts, regarding officer generated activities, i.e.: traffic stops, arrests, etc."

"Based on [his] discussion with Chief [Brian] Hickman, and at his direction," Heath goes on to list a six-point plan to improve officer performance. Two of those points stated that officers were required to "stop vehicles at any time, whether the violation is big or small" and to "not issue Verbal Warnings, and to issue Written Warnings as a minimum."

In a response to the entry, then-Lt. Darrell Hannah wrote, "I have made it clear several times myself that verbal warnings do nothing for our yearly stats."

He ends his response by saying, "If productivity remains low let me know and we can we can [sic] work on a strategy that will include the documentation on the employees yearly evaluation along with a recommendation of not receiving the yearly step raise."

In November 2018, Holloway shared concerns with Heath and Lt. Jack Sapp that the department was instituting what he called an illegal quota system, Thursday's lawsuit states.

Heath and Sapp told him to "continue doing his job and leave it alone," according to the lawsuit.

The following month, in December, the department began directing officers to meet a minimum number of "enforcement activities" and "patrol activities" each month, the lawsuit states.

Enforcement actions were defined as written citations or arrests, and patrol activities include neighborhood, business and school patrols, according to a statistic sheet posted to a bulletin board in the department's headquarters. But what did not count toward "enforcement activities," according to the lawsuit, were arrests that resulted from 911 calls. For example, if an officer responded to a reported domestic violence incident and made an arrest, that arrest would not count. The arrest would have to stem from a traffic stop.

If officers achieved their set numbers, they would be more likely to be considered for promotions, newer patrol cars or extra training opportunities. If they didn't, the deficiency would be noted in the officers' personnel files, something that is in "direct violation" to state law.

Local governments are prohibited from establishing "formally or informally, a plan to evaluate, promote, compensate, or discipline a law enforcement officer" based on a predetermined number of traffic citations. And administrators "may not require or suggest" to officers that they are required to issue a specific number of traffic citations within a certain period.

By Jan. 10 of this year, former city policeman Robert Bedell claims he was forced to resign just days after confronting supervisors over what he called a quota system. A separate lawsuit was filed in that matter.

Between January and July, Holloway, Duckett and Schilling voiced their concerns to two city commissioners: Debbie Baker and Ethan White, the lawsuit states. The commissioners then shared their own concerns with Hickman and City Manager Ted Rogers.

Not long after first speaking with commissioners in January, Duckett was called into Hickman's office and asked why he spoke to White about the department's performance standards, according to the lawsuits.

Hickman told Duckett he "needed to be careful about what he said to the Commissioners," the lawsuit states.

Then, sometime in the spring, Westfield told Schilling that he, Holloway and Duckett were being referred to as the "'cancer' of the department," the lawsuit states.

"From that point forward, the Plaintiffs felt as though they had targets on their back," the lawsuit states.

After Bedell's lawsuit was filed in July, Hamilton County District Attorney Neal Pinkston requested the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation look into the alleged quota system.

Ducket, Schilling and Holloway all voluntarily interviewed with the TBI, the lawsuit states, and were the only ones who provided agents with evidence that Collegedale was implementing an illegal quota system.

After that interview, Rogers sent a lengthy email to all city commissioners and administrators discussing several topics, one of which is something he called the "Current Situation."

"Many attacks came and completely false charges have been levied by citizens, and others," he writes. "I wonder at what point free speech becomes liable and downright slander? Indeed, I am personally looking into that on behalf of me and my staff. And where is the proof of such horrible and untrue allegations?"

He goes on to explain that he is a former fire chief and that he is "looking for the arsonist(s) who have matches and gas cans running around the City desiring to light fires."

The fired officers' attorneys argue that the email is "a direct admission by the City Manager that he was trying to identify those who would speak out against the City of Collegedale and his plans to extinguish them."

The lawsuit claims that Hickman and Rogers deprived the officers of their First Amendment right to free speech when they retaliated after the officers spoke up about the alleged quota system. And by doing so, the city violated the Tennessee Public Protection Act, which protects at-will employees from being fired solely for refusing to be silent or participate in illegal activities, and the Tennessee Public Employee Political Freedom Act, which protects public employees from retaliation for communicating with an elected public official.

It also claims that the City of Collegedale is responsible for creating a practice of silencing the speech of its employees because "it's a commonly held belief that if an officer speaks negatively about the department to an elected official, a member of the media, or other public official, that officer is in danger of losing their employment."

The lawsuit requests a jury trial and for the officers to be issued back and front pay and benefits in addition to the $2.4 million in damages and attorneys fees.

It also asks a judge to issue a permanent injunction preventing Collegedale and its administrators from "acting in a similar manner in the future" and another permanent injunction prohibiting the city from instituting another quota system.

In response to Bedell's lawsuit, the city denied all allegations involving a quota system or that Bedell was forced to resign. He did so voluntarily, the city claimed. However, in a list of all employees who have either resigned, been terminated or demoted, Bedell is listed as having "resigned in lieu of termination." The list was compiled by the city's human resources manager Kristen Boyd.

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