Hearing Officer Brett Gipson ruled that the termination of Lebanon Police Chief Scott Bowen by Mayor Philip Craighead in December 2014 was "objectively reasonable" following a hearing held at City Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 4.
In the verdict, dated Feb. 20, Gipson wrote that "the City has met their burden of proof and the termination of Scott Bowen as Chief of Police should stand."
"As I previously stated, we did not expect to win at this level - but I expect to win overall," Bowen's attorney, Keith Williams, told The Wilson Post on Friday.
According to the Lebanon City Charter, the mayor has sole authority to fire department heads because of a cause; however, Williams argued that the "cause" was not defined. The point of the hearing, he said, was to determine the cause.
During the hearing, Williams and the City's attorney David Viele brought in more than ten witnesses to cross examine. Williams had requested the hearing be open to the public, but was denied by Gipson.
In light of the verdict, Williams said they will now appeal to Chancery Court, before Chancellor C.K. Smith - as well as file a separate suit for retaliatory discharge as it relates to Bowen sticking to a National Crime Information Center user agreement he personally signed.
City Attorney Andy Wright previously told media outlets that Bowen was fired for withholding information from the Mayor regarding Lebanon Public Safety's use of the Tennessee and Federal Bureau of Investigation's database.
"The agreement they are referring to is one where police officers can punch into a database and look up criminal history, run tags, things like that," he explained. "But someone has to be in charge. There is an agreement that Scott Bowen had to sign making himself personally liable to make sure everyone under him follows the rules. In order to do that, he can only allow people to use it he can hire and fire."
Williams added that a city charter change in May 2014 made Lebanon Public Safety its own department - a department that Bowen was not overseeing.
"He was fired for refusal to remain silent about the city violating state and federal law," Williams said. "He blew the whistle on the city and got fired for it."
Verdict pinpoints several incidents on record
In Gipson's verdict, he listed numerous other incidents, which he believed to support the mayor's cause.
"At the hearing, proof of several incidents was offered by the City. Much of this was related to the Mayor's conclusion that the communication and cooperations exhibited by Bowen were below the standard he expects for department heads," he wrote before listing the following in his own words:
In Nov. 2013 Bowen and the other department heads were verbally warned by the Mayor that they would start communicating better and working together or he would discipline them. This incident began with a complaint from the Fire Chief that Bowen would not communicate or work him.
In Jan. 2014 Det. Sid Cripps was berated by Bowen in the presence of other officers for misplacing property forms. Another incident occurred in which Bowen verbally berated Det. Cripps and another supervisor named Hale. Hale did not respond well to the tongue lashing, cursing Bowen and leaving work. Hale left the department not long after the incident.
In March 2014 Bowen was issued a written warning by the Mayor for failing to acknowledge him at a public function. Bowen testified that it was inadvertent. The mayor stated that this had happened in the past and was unacceptable.
Around the time that Public Safety became a separate department in May 2014 the Chief of Public Safety complained that Bowen was not communicating with him about matters of import to his agency. One such instance involved his removal from an email chain regarding critical incidents occurring in the city. Despite requests that he be included in these emails, it took months for him to be added back.
In Sept. 2014 an EEOC complaint was filed by Lt. Brent Willett claiming that Bowen's communication to him regarding his medical condition and potential promotion was offensive and was in effect creating a hostile work environment. The Director of Human Resources for Lebanon investigated this complaint. The City ultimately settled this complaint in favor of Lt. Willett.
In Oct. 2014 a complaint was filed regarding Bowen's behavior and communication with various personnel at the scene of a traffic collision on the interstate involving multiple agencies and multiple fatalities. The HR Director for Lebanon investigated this complaint as well. As a result of these investigations, Bowen was directed to modify his communication style and to undergo training courses designed to improve his communication skills and emotional intelligence. The letter from the Director of Human Resources further stated that additional complaints or violations would result in "further corrective actions."
In Nov. 2014 the city was made aware that Bowen had one of his employees contact the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation regarding whether or not the City's Department of Public Safety was required to have their own ORI, which allows government agencies to determine whether or not individuals have a criminal record, among other things. The result of this inquiry was the Public Safety employees could no longer run background checks and search for other information pertinent to their duties. The Mayor took issue with the manner in which this occurred. He believes Bowen should have communicated his concerns about the ORI to him, the Chief of Public Safety and/or The City Attorney so that appropriate actions could be taken to correct it.
Bowen used 'poor judgment', warned verbally and in writing previously
Gipson next listed other instances to "prove that Bowen used poor judgment on occasion in the performance of his duties" such as an incident when he was "observed taking photos" on the scene of a traffic fatality.
Although allegations were made at the hearing that Bowen had sent these photos to a local media outlet, Bowen disputed the claim. Gipson said the allegation was "not proven sufficiently in my opinion."
Williams told The Wilson Post that the recount of the Nov. 2013 traffic fatality was just one example of how the hearing was being turned into what he called "a witch hunt."
At the hearing, the mayor admitted to not previously knowing about the incident - but according to Gipson testified that "if he had, he would had terminated his employment for this incident alone."
He was made aware of the incident after Bowen's termination by Officer Robert Bates who gave a statement to the human resource director.
In another alleged incident of "leaking" information to a news outlet, the city alleged that Bowen had given information about a drug investigation being held at a local campground.
The city claimed the story was posted online by the news outlet which endangered investigating officers who were planning to serve narcotics search warrants. The investigation was suspended for concern for officer safety.
Gipson ruled that these incidents were proven sufficiently as instances that Bowen's performance "fell below what was expected by his employer."
Another example deemed "poor performance" by Gipson was the allegation that Bowen intentionally ignored the mayor at a Boy Scouts function.
"Based on the proof presented, in may have been unintentional, but a failure nonetheless that resulted in discord and the appearance of a lack of unity to the public," it was stated in the verdict.
Gipson's verdict summarized
"I accredit the basic facts of the incidents listed above in bullet point form as evidence that Bowen failed to meet the standards expected by the Mayor, his supervisor," Gipson concluded.
"Bowen was notified on several occasions that he was expected to improve or modify the way he communicated and cooperated with subordinates, personnel from other departments and agencies, and the Mayor.
"Beginning in late 2013, he was warned verbally, then later warned in writing, and then sent to training to improve those skills, He was warned in writing that further incidents would cause further discipline.
"Regarding the incident involving the ORI (access to the Tennessee and Federal Bureau of Investigation database), the point of this evidence is not whether the TBI should have been contacted. It is merely the 'straw that broke the camel's back'; the last instance in which Bowen's communication to his peers and superiors was lacking, based on the reasonable expectation of his employer."
Staff Writer Sabrina Garrett may be contacted at email@example.com.