Collegedale officers fired over 'conduct unbecoming of an officer'

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All three former Collegedale, Tennessee, officers who were fired last week were terminated for "conduct unbecoming of an officer," according to their personnel files. But what that alleged conduct actually was is not clarified.

The last entry - logged on Sept. 3 - in each officer's disciplinary file, which is separate from their personnel file, is a lengthy reprimand for not checking on houses that were on the department's "watch list" and a directive for remedial counseling.

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 entry was not logged into the officers' files until three months after the reprimand was issued at a meeting. In it, police Sgt. Michael Westfield details what he called a failure "to comply with my orders." Each officer rebutted the complaint.

(Read more: Collegedale assistant police chief resigns; mayor stalls emergency meeting)

"In June 2019, I, Sgt. Westfield was advised by another supervisor about their concern of the lack of the Watch List [checks] being logged on Alpha Team which consists of Cpl. Davis Holloway, Ofc. Kolby Duckett, and Ofc. David Schilling," he writes. It's never clarified who the concerned supervisor was.

"Due to this shift-wide inactivity, I requested a meeting with this team to discuss this matter," he writes.

That meeting took place on June 19. Westfield told the officers that "not checking the watch list was unacceptable and that they were expected to be checked each shift."

Westfield noted that Schilling questioned his order regarding the watch list and said "[Schilling] needed to have a reason why this is being an order."

Schilling disputed Westfield's characterization in a rebuttal, saying he was asking "why we were now checking the watch list twice, since we had only been directed to check them once in the past [I was] just trying to understand if something had happened that I needed to know about."

Nearly two months passed before Westfield called another meeting. On Aug. 14, he let the officers know they had "disobeyed [his] orders."

The officers, according to Westfield, apologized and explained they were logging their checks in a different system than what he ordered.

Nearly a month later, on Sept. 3, the reprimand is finally entered into the disciplinary file, though no mention is made about whether the officers had missed any home checks since the Aug. 14 meeting. Then on Sept. 4, each officer responds to the entry disputing the allegations in the complaint.

Schilling pointed out that some patrol schedules had been wrong. For example, he said the schedule showed him as working during the first two weeks in July. But he'd actually been on vacation for most of that time.

He went on to list each "watch" he conducted between June 19 and Sept. 2.

"In total, after my research, I missed 11 watch list checks over just 6 days," Schilling wrote.

He also stated that, on Sept. 3, Westfield told him that someone else told him to log the entry as insubordination, but that Westfield decided to log it as remedial counseling instead.

"With all the above aforementioned information, I am left with the conclusion that Sgt. Westfield did not enter this entry on his own this entry was personal and degrading in its intent and wording. I am also left with the conclusion that there may have been an underlying objective in this entry."

The other officers logged similar disputes, though not as detailed, and corroborated some of Schilling's claims, such as Westfield saying he was told to file the reprimand as insubordination.

Nevertheless, two days after filing their rebuttal, all three officers were fired.

They became the eight, ninth and 10th officers who have either resigned or been terminated since Jan. 1. That's 42% of the force.

The department now has 18 full-time officers, and it's budgeted for 24.

Janie Parks Varnell, who is representing Duckett and Schilling, has said the officers were fired for helping the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in its probe of the city's alleged quota system.

The TBI has been investigating the allegation since July, and it remains "active and ongoing," according to TBI spokeswoman Susan Niland.

Parks Varnell argued that "Tennessee law protects public employees who bring attention to the illegal activities of their employers."

The city has denied the allegations of wrongful termination and has argued it is an "'at-will' employer under Tennessee law, meaning that either "the City or the employee may terminate the employment relationship at any time without notice or cause."

In July, Parks Varnell filed a lawsuit against the city and its officials on behalf of former officer Robert Bedell, who claims to have been forced to resign just days after confronting supervisors over the alleged quota system.

Because Bedell was a public servant, he had a "property right to his employment," Varnell has argued, meaning he was entitled to "sufficient notice of any misconduct justifying termination," according to the Tennessee constitution.

Additionally, Bedell had a "due process right" to be notified of any allegations against him, Varnell states.

Tennessee law states that police officers have to be "notified in writing of all charges, the basis for the charges, and the action that may be taken," and officers should be given a reasonable amount of time to respond to such allegations.

In its response to the lawsuit, the city has argued that law does not apply to it because "the City of Collegedale does not provide its police officers a property interest in their employment," according to its response to Bedell's lawsuit.

It also denied all allegations involving a quota system or that Bedell was forced to resign. He did so voluntarily, the city claims. 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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