Letter: Suspended East Ridge police chief being investigated for lack of leadership, hostile environment

Letter: Suspended East Ridge police chief being investigated for lack of leadership, hostile environment

December 6th, 2018 by Zack Peterson in Local Regional News

A newly released letter sheds more light on why East Ridge officials are investigating suspended Police Chief J.R. Reed.

In a letter to Reed dated Nov. 21, Acting City Manager Kenny Custer wrote that his suspension is based on several allegations, including "internal financial audit of confiscated funds and goods, lack of department leadership, management of investigations, handling of open records requests, and allowing a hostile employee environment to exist."

The Times Free Press obtained Custer's letter through a public records request. Neither Reed nor Custer, who replaced retired City Manager Scott Miller in November, responded to requests for more information about the investigation.

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / East Ridge Police Chief James Reed answers questions from reporters following the capture of a manhunt suspect at the entrance of Camp Jordan on Thursday, October 4, 2018 in East Ridge, Tennessee. Law enforcement employed the use of K-9 Units, a drone and officers on foot to find the suspect.

Staff photo by Erin O. Smith / East...

Photo by Erin O. Smith

Document: End Zone Bar and Grill lawsuit

Read the allegations in the End Zone Bar and Grill lawsuit.

But Vince Champion, the southeast regional director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, said some of Custer's allegations could be referring to the department's union, which has criticized Reed's management. Earlier this year, Champion said, the union got involved when officer Adam Rose was kicked off the SWAT team for allegedly bringing up concerns about outdated equipment against Reed's orders. Rose was fired earlier this month for having an unrelated relationship with an 18-year-old high-school student and is appealing that termination at a hearing Monday at East Ridge City Hall at 9 a.m.

Other lawsuits, emails, reports and legal documents highlight some possible issues within Reed's department over the last year and a half.

In May 2017, a civil lawsuit alleges, Reed directed his officers to shut down End Zone Bar and Grill, which had a largely black clientele, because of an expired state license. But the company's licenses were not expired, the lawsuit says, nor did Reed's officers ever go through a court or a beer and alcohol commission to declare the company a "public nuisance."

Instead, the suit says, an officer no longer with the department falsely accused black patrons of being gang members and claimed there was a high amount of criminal activity, and city officials went to End Zone's landlord to get the bar shut down later that summer.

East Ridge attorneys have denied many of these allegations, which are being litigated in Hamilton County Circuit Court after a federal judge dismissed some of the bar's legal claims against the officer. The company's owner is seeking $300,000 in damages.

Later that fall, the Times Free Press reported, Reed told a supervisor he couldn't trust officers with whole boxes of rubber gloves, which they requested after a batch of crime-scene drugs tested positive for fentanyl. Aside from their safety concerns about touching the synthetic opioid, officers are widely encouraged to wear rubber gloves whenever they handle crime-scene evidence.

Then in February, emails show, Reed told supervisors to have their officers scan vehicle tags in a private gated community using a special criminal database provided by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Reed wanted officers to send the information to him so he could pass it onto Frawley Lake's neighborhood association, the emails show. But supervisors disobeyed the order, concerned that it violated the TBI's rules on how to properly use the database.

By March, 35 of the roughly 45-person department unionized and said Reed had mismanaged the police budget and ignored requests for outdated pieces of equipment. Reed, a patrolman of nearly 30 years who was appointed chief in 2014, responded saying officers hadn't told him these concerns and that he was adjusting to having maximum personnel for the first time in many years.

Shortly after a community fundraiser in July to raise money for the department, Reed asked the city council for roughly $200,000 out of the general budget to buy new SWAT equipment and police vehicles. Over the next few months, the union endorsed former councilman Jim Bethune for East Ridge Mayor while non-union officers and firefighters supported Brian Williams, who won the November election.

Two days before Reed's suspension on Nov. 21, the Times Free Press reported that East Ridge officers stunned a suspect in the testicles and choked him unconscious during an Oct. 21 arrest. Critics called the force excessive, and the suspect, Chris Penn, was charged with assaulting two officers and misusing 911.

Custer told East Ridge News Online that Penn's arrest wasn't a factor in Reed's suspension, and Assistant Police Chief Stan Allen said the officers involved used "necessary force" and were not disciplined.

Since that time, Penn has hired a criminal defense attorney well known for suing police departments and local governments.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.


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