What it takes to fire a police chief

5 months 1 week 6 days ago Sunday, December 09 2018 Dec 9, 2018 Sunday, December 09, 2018 4:34:00 PM CST December 09, 2018 in News
By: Ian Nickens, KOMU 8 Reporter

COLUMBIA – Police Chief Ken Burton is on administrative leave, but state laws make it difficult to take the step of firing a police chief.

Some residents, especially those involved with the activist group Race Matters, Friends, have long expressed discontent with Burton.

Community leaders like Traci Wilson-Kleekamp have openly advocated for Burton's firing or resignation on Facebook.

That brings up the question, "what does it take to remove a police chief?"

In 2013, when then-Represenative, now Senator Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, sponsored House Bill 399. House Bill 399 rewrote the revised statutes of Missouri in order to implement a specific procedure for removing a non-elected police chief, like Burton.

"Prior to that date, chief law enforcement officers of small towns could be fired at will by the mayor or by city council," attorney Andy Hirth said. "So, as you might imagine, there's frequently political disputes in small towns– someone on the city council doesn't like that his brother got pulled over by the police chief, so he loses his job. This law was an attempt to kind of correct that."

First, the city council must notify a police chief of its decision to remove them. If the chief wants, they can request a written statement of why they were dismissed and a hearing. 

At the hearing, the chief gets a chance to defend themselves by providing witnesses and evidence of their own to support their innocence. This process has to be followed to the letter.

Perhaps most importantly, the city council or board of alderman needs a specific and concrete reason to dismiss a police chief. The possible reasons for dismissal outlined by the statute are as follows:

-The chief is unable to perform their duties because of a mental condition or substance abuse.

-The chief has demonstrated reckless disregard for safety while on the job.

-The chief has misrepresented a fact for illegal purposes.

-The chief has acted only for their own self-benefit, and against the general interest of the public.

-The chief has committed a crime.

-The chief has shown insubordination or violated a written policy (only applies if that policy was legal).

The other thing HB 399 did was add several sections to the statutes so no other statute could be used to remove a police chief.

"Know that the statute provides a fair amount of procedural protections for officers, so they have a chance to make their case," Hirth said.

"If the bar was set too low, making it easier to remove a chief, we would probably go through chiefs fairly regularly," Executive Vice President of Strategos International Mark Warren said. Strategos International is a company that trains law enforcement and offers consultations, among other things. Warren also warned the gap a police chief leaves behind after dismissal can cause its own problems.

It's not often that a city attempts to dismiss a police chief, but if it doesn't follow the dismissal procedure carefully, it can open up the possibility of a lawsuit.

One city right in the same county as Columbia fired its police chief recently: Sturgeon. In 2017, the board of alderman fired Greg Halderman, but he came back with a lawsuit, claiming the city didn't properly follow dismissal procedure. Andy Hirth is his attorney.

"They did have a hearing, they did allow Mr. Halderman to present evidence, but they did not allow him to cross-examine any of the witnesses against him, they didn't follow the formal rules of evidence, they relied on hearsay statements and documents that no one authenticated," Hirth said.

Halderman is requesting reinstatement to his position, as well as compensation for damage to mental welfare and reputation. 

As of the writing of this article, Halderman's lawsuit is in the Boone County Circuit Court. The presiding judge will then determine if the dismissal process was contested, meaning it had a trial of its own, or non-contested. Depending on how the judge rules, the appeal will proceed differently.

Hirth says he will also represent another police chief who is suing over the dismissal process. Chief Kennen Martinez of Exeter feels he was unjustly and improperly dismissed after blowing the whistle on nepotism in city management, according to Hirth.

According to previous KOMU 8 reporting, Halderman had a great deal of community support. According to the Barry County Advertiser, Martinez is experiencing the same. However, public support plays no part in the dismissal process. The same goes for public disapproval. 

Hard evidence is required to fire a police chief, and while the city is staying quiet about what led to the decision to put Burton on leave, Chief Ken Burton has no publicly-known violations of law or policy. Several groups have tried to get him fired before, even back before the current law was in place.

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