Board votes 6-0 to reinstate police officer

Friday, January 25, 2013
Attorney Jim Harris (right) argues a point during Thursday's appeal hearing for terminated Blytheville police officer Rodney Richardson (left). The appeals board voted 6-0 to reinstate Richardson and award him back pay.

For the first time since dissolving the Civil Service in December 2006, the city of Blytheville appeals board overturned a decision by Police Chief Ross Thompson, when it reinstated officer Rodney Richardson Thursday night and awarded him back pay.

Thompson terminated Richardson on Tuesday, Dec. 18, accusing him of abusing sick leave. Richardson attended the Osceola church he pastors -- New Life Global Ministries -- the previous Sunday, a day that he was scheduled to work, though he had a doctor's excuse to be off. Thompson believed Richardson was preaching, arguing that he was performing a second job, while being paid by the city at the same time. Richardson said he was attending church that morning, and he was at the altar to receive prayer for his illness and to thank the congregation for the prayers and support.

The board sided with Richardson, voting unanimously, 6-0, to put him back on staff and getting a boisterous applause from a large crowd on hand. Along with Councilmen John Musgraves and R.L. Jones, who respectively made the motion and seconded it, voting in Richardson's favor were Council members Missy Langston, Stan Parks and Tommy Abbott, as well as human resources director Judy Andrews. Councilman Kevin Snow was unable to attend.

"I just don't know how it's going to be when I get back, but I'm going back," Richardson said after the meeting. "I need a job; I've got to work."

He is hopeful the other officers will be supportive.

"I thank the people for their support and I thank the City Council for making the right decision," Richardson said.

Thompson said he doesn't believe it will be awkward when Richardson returns, and he respects the Council's decision.

"I appreciate the work of the Council," Thompson said. "That's the reason that we have (hearings), that's part of it. I'm glad that they took the time, and I'm sure they thought in depth about it. We'll pick up and go from here."

For 50 minutes, the board, made up of the City Council plus Andrews, heard from Andrews, Thompson, Richardson and his attorney, Jim Harris.

Then, Council members went into a 15-minute executive session with Richardson and Mayor James Sanders. Per executive session rules, Andrews was not allowed back; neither was Thompson after Harris voiced objection that the chief was not Richardson's immediate supervisor.

During the previous appeals, Thompson was allowed in executive session. Another change was Andrews voted, something she hadn't done previously because she was mistakenly thought to be a tie-breaker only voter in the other appeals.

Andrews opened the testimony portion by reading the sick leave policy. When asked later by Harris, she said she didn't believe Richardson violated what was in the termination letter.

A letter dated Dec. 18 from Thompson to Richardson said: "Upon receiving this letter, your employment with the Blytheville Police Department has ended. As you are aware, you came under suspicion of abuse of sick leave on December 16, 2012. It is our determination that you, in fact, abused your sick leave in violation with the department policy and common employer, employee relationships."

A note on Diffine Family Practice, PLLC letterhead, dated Dec. 13, 2012, asks to excuse Rodney Richardson from work until Dec. 18, 2012, "due to illness."

Thompson told the board he received the doctor's excuse on Dec. 17, though he received another excuse for the previous Tuesday, when Richardson left his shift early, complaining of a different illness, a stomach ailment (Richardson has said the other excuse was for bronchitis).

"The circumstances that surrounded it appeared that yes he did abuse the sick leave," Thompson said of an investigation into Richardson's sick leave. "There was some more determination, there was other information in that personnel file that we reviewed as well, that kind of brought us up to reaching this decision."

Neither Council members, nor Harris, wanted Thompson to speak in open session on what was in the personnel file.

"We took this incident here and then went back and looked back at the history," Thompson said. "I made the decision to dismiss him based on all of that."

The chief said Richardson's immediate supervisor, Jeremy Ward, who wasn't present Thursday, went to the officer's house that Sunday, found he wasn't there, nor could he contact him.

Thompson said the captain directed Ward to drive to Osceola to see if Richardson was there. Ward saw Richardson's vehicle and asked an Osceola officer to look inside for confirmation he was there.

"According to the Osceola police officer, he was preaching," Thompson said. "This would constitute a second job, and he was in fact being paid by the city of Blytheville for that 12-hour shift during that time."

Richardson said he wasn't preaching.

"We had prayer, I was at the altar when the officer came in," Richardson said. "We have a small church. When you open our doors, you can hear our doors. Everybody turned around, interrupted our service."

He said he did address the congregation to thank them from praying for him.

"We prayed, and my wife does praise and worship and that's what we did and we went home," he said.

He added when he got home, another officer came to his house and brought him a Christmas gift, noting she could have gotten any information the BPD needed at that time.

"I don't get paid for pastoring," Richardson said, getting emotional. "It's not a job for me, it's a calling. I'm very offended, having a little girl tell me, 'Daddy, we can't have a good Christmas because you are not working.' ... When you treat people like this, you need to be on the altar yourself; it's not right."

Harris argued Thompson has no proof Richardson was preaching, only hearsay.

Thompson indicated Richardson's absence put a strain on other officers that day.

"We had officers on that shift, on that Sunday, that were ill," Thompson said. "They were throwing up ill. And we were shorthanded. They stuck it out and they stayed."

Harris rebutted: "Lt. Ward is the one who went to Osceola, right? And that was when y'all were shorthanded? So you were shorthanded, but you had officer Ward take his Blytheville patrol car and go to Osceola to investigate another police officer to see what he was doing."

Thompson responded: "I think you can clearly see that this is a serious issue and that's why they did that."

Thompson pointed out that Richardson told the media he began to feel better that day and the chief believes he could have worked.

"Is it as strenuous for two hours on a Sunday morning as it is for 12 hours on a police shift?" Parks asked.

Thompson said Richardson could have been placed on light duty. Jones asked if he was offered light duty, and Thompson responded that Richardson didn't give supervisors the opportunity to offer light duty.

Harris argued Richardson's medication, Tussionex syrup, would have affected his ability to perform his duties because its side effects are dizziness, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, anxiousness, etc.

Harris convinced the board, who returned from executive session with a unanimous decision.