Decertification

Jan. 14, 2008

By Jacob Quinn Sanders
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

EAST CAMDEN — The ceilings are high in the drab, windowless room where police officers lose their careers, but the tension can make the room feel small and cramped.

This is Classroom 1 inside the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy. Old, fading, tarnished plaques line the off-white painted cinder-block walls, listing academy graduates from 1966 through 1979. A green chalkboard at the head of the room and the hole in a back wall for a projector reveal the room’s more common, everyday use — as a place recruits from across Arkansas learn how to be police officers and take the tests to get state-certified.

But this is also where, four times a year, the state Commission on Law Enforcement Standards and Training decides whether to strip certified officers of their badges. The commission’s process is formal and informal, cold and painfully personal.

In Arkansas, usually a law-enforcement agency has already fired the officer or the officer quit. Sometimes there’s a crime involved, and even when an agency finds that one of its officers broke the law, criminal charges don’t always follow. The officers’ indiscretions vary — lying, sexual harassment, drunken driving, stealing — but the possible penalty is the same for them all: the inability to ever again work in Arkansas law enforcement.

The cases that come before the commission rarely get reported to the public in detail. The meetings are open, and so are the records used to build cases against officers, but often the only people who attend are accusers, accused, maybe a close family member and the commission members themselves. Thus the cases pass quietly, almost unnoticed, with only an occasional window into the process and the human flaws that make it necessary.

Officers facing decertification don’t have to have a hearing if they don’t want one, relinquishing their status without having to answer any questions. They can have a lawyer. Every witness and each of the accused gets sworn in.

Only a small number choose to fight: commission Director Terry Bolton said maybe one in every 10. It isn’t a foregone conclusion that they’ll lose, he said, though most do.

Tommy Harlan O’Neal, 46, said he thought about all of that as he slumped in a brown plastic chair during Thursday’s commission meeting.

Fired as a part-time deputy by the Benton County Sheriff’s Department last year, accused of using a state law-enforcement database off-duty for personal reasons, he said he thought that his career was over right there in Classroom 1.

The sheriff’s office and the attorney general’s office considered his conduct a Class D felony, punishable by up to six years in prison, though neither filed charges.

Records show that during the sheriff’s office investigation of his conduct, he admitted it. Under oath at his decertification hearing Thursday, he admitted it again.

“I figured right when I walked in here, they’d made up their minds about me,” he said. “No doubt. No doubt. I was done. And all because I did something just that once that I’d never, ever do again.”

He said he came because it was his only chance to get back into real law enforcement.

“If it’s your only chance, don’t you take it?” he asked.

He lives in Rogers and works for the city as an animal control officer, though he’d like to at least get on with Benton County’s animal control unit so he doesn’t have to kill any animals.

“That’s the worst, man,” he said.

O’Neal wore a light blue, collared dress shirt under a brown striped sweater, khakis and milk-chocolate-colored hiking boots. He clasped his hands tightly, his knuckles white. A bowling ball of a man, O’Neal is bald on top with his light hair clipped close on the sides of his head.

He didn’t take a lawyer.

To get fully certified in the first place, a recruit must complete a state-approved training course and pass a year-long probation period. For part-timers like O’Neal, it’s 120 hours of training in return for $1 a month as essentially a volunteer with a gun, a badge and police powers.

The number of officers who get decertified year to year follows no discernible pattern. There were six in 2004, 27 in 2005, 10 in 2006 and six again last year. There are approximately 5,400 sworn law officers in the state.

Listening to law-enforcement professionals talk about crimes and investigations to other law-enforcement professionals is a little like listening to police reports read aloud, verbatim. A lot of it is police-ese like “this particular individual” and “exited the vehicle” and “became aware during the course of our investigation” and “took an aggressive posture.”

Before his hearing could get started, O’Neal had to sit through the nine-member commission’s regular meeting, its first of four scheduled in 2008, presided over by a chairman elected from the commission’s ranks by its members and Bolton. Placement on the commission comes through a governor’s appointment.

Of the 14 hearings the commission could have approved — items which filled most of the agenda — they declined at least temporarily in three cases, citing pending litigation or a dearth of available information. The other 11 could find themselves in O’Neal’s position at some point in the next six months or so.

Such as the former Parkin police sergeant whose department accused him of stealing a .380-caliber Taurus handgun and giving it as a gift to his father, marijuana from an evidence locker and $48 in quarters that would have been used to wash patrol cars. Parkin police charged him with theft of property and tampering with physical evidence.

Many commissioners’ private favorite, however, was a fired Waldo police officer. During its investigation, records show, the Waldo Police Department found that the officer sold a police dog after being sent to Texas to pick up a few of them, falsified employment paperwork — even forging Chief Robert Philson’s signature —to create an officer who didn’t exist and opened an unauthorized bank account in the department’s name.

“Can you believe that?” Commissioner Barney Reeves, former director of the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission’s enforcement division. “I mean, he lives near me. I know him. And I had no idea he could be that stupid.”

Reeves said he thought before he joined the commission in spring 2007 that bad officers were rarities, isolated cases that only surfaced at distant intervals.

“Boy, was I wrong,” he said. “This is eye-opening. Disappointing, too, because you want to believe the best about these people. But this certification ain’t for life. Lot of people don’t get that.”

At 11:30, it was time for O’Neal’s hearing.

Benton County Sheriff Keith Ferguson was there as an observer. He said in five years in office O’Neal was the first person he’d ever recommended lose certification.

“There are some lines you don’t cross,” he said. “There are some messages you have to send to both an individual and to everyone who works for you, some behavior you just can’t tolerate.”

Assistant Attorney General Don Barnes, the commission’s legal adviser and prosecutor during these sessions, handed O’Neal a packet with the information he planned to use against him 15 minutes before the hearing. O’Neal said into the microphone that he hadn’t yet read through it all the way, but that was OK. Everyone could get started.

Benton County Lt. Mark Undiamo sat next to him, Barnes’ only witness. Undiamo said O’Neal called in to dispatch in April to ask for information on a Bella Vista woman from the Arkansas Crime Information Center to take care of some personal business.

O’Neal said he’d worked a 17-hour shift and gotten an hour and a half of sleep before his 20-year-old daughter called, distraught, to say her husband’s aunt had her baby. He said he told her to come over.

“I told her I would get the police involved, but she said no,” O’Neal testified.

No one had the aunt’s address, so that’s what O’Neal asked dispatch to look up.

“I just wanted the address,” he testified, “I didn’t care nothing about the lady. I just wanted the baby.”

Dispatch gave him an address, and he said he called Bella Vista police to go with him and his daughter to the address. They picked up the child and went home.

A week later, he found out he was suspended and under investigation for a Class D felony. He had been a part-time deputy since 2003.

His face flushed as he answered questions from commissioners, and he rubbed his hands together harder.

And then the commission took a break to deliberate and vote. O’Neal stood in the building’s lobby by himself.

Back in Classroom 1 five minutes later, Commissioner Billy Hrvatin, a Hot Springs police sergeant attending his first meeting, moved to let O’Neal keep his certification. The motion passed, 7-1.

O’Neal said afterward he was too stressed out to feel relieved, but he’d work on that.

“I certainly didn’t expect that,” he said.

Hrvatin said after the meeting that he believed the information O’Neal sought was readily available enough that he would have found it somewhere and that he believed there may have been a child in danger, making the call police business.

“He intended no maliciousness,” Hrvatin said.

O’Neal said he had a new respect for people who get investigated.

“It was hell,” he said. “I’d never known what that was like until now.”

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