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Collegedale 'Acknowledgement Document'

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UPDATE: In response to several questions posed by the Times Free Press, Collegedale city spokeswoman Bridgett Raper responded late Wednesday evening, saying the city has "nothing further to add."

"We have provided you with the documents which are subject to the open records act," she said.

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Original story: 

An email sent to all Collegedale, Tennessee, police officers Monday afternoon directed them to stop by the city's human resources office this week to sign an "acknowledgement document."

The document, obtained by the Times Free Press, states, "I [signature] understand that I am voluntarily joining an organization (Collegedale Police Department) that is para-military in its very nature, and as part of our Nation's domestic defense force where I am given orders to follow."

Officers are asked to agree to receive and follow orders "regardless of my generational beliefs and values as this is simply part of the job I am applying for and desire and/or hold."

It goes on to state that, "I understand I am part of a uniformed chain-of-command and that I work for and report to the City Manager, Chief of Police, and the remaining supervisory rank structure of the City of Collegedale Police Department."

The letter ends by stating, "[I] understand I am bound in performance of my duties ... as I accept and maintain my employment with the Collegedale Police Department."

Multiple city officials, including city and police department spokeswoman Bridgett Raper, human resources manager Kristen Boyd and city attorney Sam Elliott, did not return multiple requests for comment and clarification.

Asked why police officers were directed to sign the document, Boyd said, "I don't understand, what document are you requesting?"

It's not clear why officers were required to sign the document or who drafted it. But it raises several questions and concerns, according to experts.

 

"Profiling a generation"

"There are a lot of things [officers] have to sign," said Seth Stoughton, an associate professor at the University of South Carolina who studies policing and spent five years as an officer with the Tallahassee (Florida) Police Department. "But I don't know that I've ever seen a specific form unrelated to a policy that seems to say, 'I understand I have to follow orders even if I don't like them.' I don't think I've ever seen that, because it's pretty obviously part of the job."

The Chattanooga Police Department, for example, "doesn't have anything like this [letter] regarding following orders," Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal said.

Chattanooga police do have a policy for following orders, but it's much more detailed and doesn't explicitly state officers are required to follow orders "regardless of [their] generational beliefs and values."

In fact, it specifies orders should be "lawful orders," and that "no member of the department shall be subject to disciplinary action for having refused to obey an unlawful order."

It also specifies that the policy should "not to be construed as restricting in any way the guaranteed constitutional rights of any employee."

With Collegedale, however, "any time that it looks like an agency is grouping people together in stereotypical ways, it makes me very concerned," Stoughton said about the reference to "generational beliefs and values."

"It's profiling a generation of people," said Fred Shenkman, an emeritus professor of criminology at the University of Florida who has taught and consulted with law enforcement agencies across the country for more than 40 years.

"If that's a stereotype they appear to be buying into, are there other stereotypes that they may be buying into? Stereotypes of race or gender, for example," Stoughton said. "It would be entirely inappropriate for them to replace the word 'generational beliefs' with the word 'racial beliefs' or 'gendered beliefs' I think it shows a remarkable distrust."

Additionally, Stoughton said that identifying the police department as "paramilitary" and as "part of our Nation's domestic defense force" is nonsense.

"To emphasize that the police department is part of the nation's domestic defense system, as opposed to what it actually is — policing is a part of the social service system — is to fundamentally, in my view, misunderstand the police role in the community," he said.

"Collegedale is not on the front lines of any kind of war," he said.

Another issue both Stoughton and Shenkman pointed out was that the city manager is not a part of the police department's chain of command.

"The city manager is not a sworn person. The person has absolutely no authority," Shenkman said. "Even though, ultimately, the city manager is responsible for the police department, he has no authority in ordering police officers to do anything."

However, Boyd, the human resources manager, said Collegedale city manager Ted Rogers "has always been in the chain of command" and that "no changes [were] made in policy or practice through this document or as it relates to anything said in the document."

But the police department's own policy manual does not include the city manager as part of the department's chain of command.

Rogers supervises the police chief and has power over employees who respond to him, according to the city's charter. But as far as police chain of command, the police department's manual defines it as "The unbroken line of authority extending from the Chief of Police through a single subordinate at each level of command."

 

Alleged quotas investigated

The letter comes amid a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into an alleged quota system and multiple lawsuits against the city and its police department by former officers who claim they were fired or forced to resign in retaliation for raising concerns about the alleged quotas.

In December 2018, the department began directing officers to meet a minimum number of "enforcement actions" and "patrol activities" each month, one of the lawsuits states. Enforcement actions mean written citations or arrests, and patrol activities include neighborhood, business and school patrols.

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Ted Rogers' email

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Each officer had to complete at least 25 enforcement actions and 100 patrol activities, something that attorney Janie Parks Varnell argues is against state law.

The most recent firings were because three officers allegedly did not regularly check 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 entry was not logged into the officers' files until three months after the reprimand was issued, and each officer rebutted the complaint.

Two days after filing their rebuttals, all three officers were fired.

Parks Varnell, who is representing two of the officers, has said they were fired for helping the TBI in its inquiry into the alleged quota system.

The bureau has been investigating the allegation since July, the same month 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.

After that lawsuit was filed, Rogers, the city manager, sent a lengthy email upon returning from vacation to all city commissioners and the mayor.

In the email, Rogers discusses the city's 39-cent tax increase and something he called the "Current Situation."

"I am less than impressed with the agendas that were exposed in my absence," the July 18 email reads.

"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 adds, "I am ... looking for the arsonist(s) who have matches and gas cans running around the City desiring to light fires."

Since the beginning of the year, 10 officers have either resigned or been terminated. That's 42% of the force.

The department now has 18 full-time officers. It is budgeted for 24.

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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