Board finds city followed procedures in firing SRO

Published 10:12 pm Tuesday, November 7, 2017

While some members of the City of Elizabethton’s Personnel Advisory Board questioned the findings of an investigation that led to the termination of an Elizabethton police officer, the Board unanimously agreed City Manager Jerome Kitchens followed proper procedure when dismissing the employee.

Members of the Personnel Advisory Board met Tuesday evening at City Hall to hold a hearing requested by former Elizabethton Police Department officer Scott Whitmire, who filed a complaint with the Board challenging his termination from employment.

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On Oct. 6, the City of Elizabethton formally terminated Whitmire’s employment following the conclusion of an internal investigation into complaints of inappropriate conduct by Whitmire at Elizabethton High School where he served as the school resource officer. According to city personnel records obtained by the Elizabethton Star, the form ending Whitmire’s employment lists the reasons for termination as “disgraceful or outrageous personal conduct or language toward a member of the public or toward fellow employees” and “falsification” of city records. According to the records obtained by the Star, Whitmire allegedly falsified records regarding his military service and engaged in inappropriate conduct with school employees.

Whitmire said he was “wrongfully terminated” and denied the allegations against him.

During the Personnel Advisory Board Hearing on Tuesday, Kitchens spoke to the Board regarding the investigation into the complaints against Whitmire, as did Elizabethton Police Chief Jason Shaw and Elizabethton City Schools Director Dr. Corey Gardenhour.

Shaw told the Board he received a call on Sept. 7 from Gardenhour, who told him he had received a complaint from Elizabethton High School Principal Josh Boatman about Whitmire exhibiting inappropriate conduct toward female employees at the high school.

Shaw also addressed questions regarding the allegation Whitmire falsified information regarding his military service.

On Whitmire’s application for employment with the police department, Whitmire stated he had not served in the military. During the internal investigation into the complaint of misconduct, Shaw said Whitmire admitted he had served in the military briefly during basic training but received a medical discharge.

City Attorney Roger Day asked Shaw how that discovery “sat with” him regarding Whitmire’s answers on his military service.

“It didn’t sit well at all,” Shaw replied. “It’s falsifying records. It questioned his truthfulness and integrity. It would affect court proceedings.”

Shaw described the complaints of misconduct as “disheartening” and “discouraging.” He said the complaints showed a “pattern of behavior” by Whitmire that “was totally unacceptable.”

After the department completed its internal investigation into the complaints, Shaw said he made a recommendation to Kitchens to terminate Whitmire’s employment.

During his time to speak before the Board, Kitchens described the process he followed in terminating Whitmire’s employment. Under city personnel guidelines, while the department head can make a recommendation regarding disciplinary action or termination, the decision ultimately rests with the City Manager.

Kitchens said he reviewed the findings of the investigation and agreed with the recommendation by Shaw for termination.

“This was more a question of judgment and trustworthiness,” Kitchens said. “We had an SRO who was making employees uncomfortable with his behavior.”

Kitchens said he felt Whitmire had demonstrated “a pattern of poor judgment.”

In deciding to terminate Whitmire, Kitchens said he did look at the officer’s history with the department, evaluations, and disciplinary history.

“He had good evaluations, but I didn’t think that overrode the fact he was making employees uncomfortable,” Kitchens said.

Gardenhour said the school system conducted its own investigation into the complaints school employees made against Whitmire. During the investigation, Gardenhour said school system officials interviewed several employees, and he described those making the complaints as “trusted employees.”

When Whitmire’s turn came to address the Board, he said school employees had ample opportunity to file complaints against him with his supervisors, but no one had complained until September. One of the alleged incidents reportedly took place during the 2015-16 school year, according to Whitmire.

The former officer alleged Kitchens and Shaw failed to follow proper procedures during the internal investigation, disciplinary action and ultimately in his dismissal from his position.

Whitmire also addressed the allegations that he falsified city records regarding his military service.

“As far as my understanding of military service, I have none,” Whitmire said.

According to Whitmire, he served 28 days in basic training with the Air Force in 1982 before being given an “uncharacterized entry level separation.”  He said he did receive DD214 Form, which is a certificate of release or discharge issued by the Department of Defense upon a service member’s retirement, separation, or discharge.

Also speaking during Tuesday’s hearing was Dr. Nathaniel Horton, Ph.D., who serves as a Lieutenant in the Maryland Air National Guard. When he introduced himself to the Board, Horton said he was not at the meeting in any “official capacity.” Horton also said he was not there on behalf of Whitmire, though he said he was acquainted with the former officer and assisted him in developing the curriculum for the Cadet Corps program which Whitmire launched first in the county school system and then later at Elizabethton High School.

Horton told the Board when a person does not complete basic training they are not considered as having served in the military. He said he had never known Whitmire to misrepresent himself as having served in the military.

During his presentation to the Board, Horton also questioned the legality of the city’s employment application asking for prospective employees to check yes or no to indicate if they had ever served in the military. He said the practice was discriminatory and could lead to a class action lawsuit against the city.

When the time came for the Board to deliberate, Board Attorney Charlton DeVault reminded the Board members their duty was to determine if city policies had been followed.

“We cannot judge on the severity of the punishment,” DeVault said. “What we have to determine is if the City Manager followed the process set forth.”

Some members of the Board said they took issue with the findings of the internal investigations on the allegation of “falsification of city records.”

DeVault noted a recent change to city personnel policies to bring the city into compliance with state law changed the way which the Board could review disciplinary action. In years past, DeVault said the Board would review actions and sometimes would reverse disciplinary actions taken by the city manager. If the Board were a Civil Service Board it could still make those rulings, DeVault said.

“Since we are not a civil service board we are very, very limited on what we can and cannot do,” DeVault said.

Board Chairman Kelly Geagly said the decision before the Board was to determine if Kitchens adhered to city personnel policy.

“The decision tonight is whether the process was followed, not whether we agree or not,” Geagly said.

DeVault said based on the evidence presented at the hearing his legal advice to the Board was that Kitchens did, in fact, follow the city’s procedures regarding Whitmire’s termination.

Following that advice by DeVault, the Board unanimously voted to affirm that procedures had been adhered to.

The Board also elected to give an advisory recommendation that Kitchens work with legal counsel to address the issue of the military service question on employment applications to conform with state and federal laws.