Decatur NAACP raises questions about resignation of Decatur officerPhoto by Dan Whisenhunt
This story has been updated.
A civil rights and criminal defense attorney, acting on behalf of the Decatur NAACP, wants to speak to city of Decatur officials regarding the resignation of a black police lieutenant.
Mawuli Davis, co-chair of the city of Decatur branch of the NAACP, emailed City Manager Peggy Merriss on Nov. 7 concerning Lt. Eric Jackson’s case. The Decatur branch of the NAACP formed earlier this year, and Davis said he learned of Jackson’s case from another NAACP official.
Jackson, a black lieutenant previously named officer of the year, and another officer were forced out of their jobs over a matter involving $7 found in a patrol car. The men were accused of improperly handling money that turned up during a routine vehicle inspection. Jackson told Decaturish he resigned because he was going to be terminated otherwise. Officer Joshua Speed said he was terminated. Both men have appealed and the city held a grievance hearings last week and a determination is expected soon.
Davis said he was aware of Speed’s case. He has been in touch with Jackson’s attorney but has not spoken to Speed’s attorney. Speed told Decaturish on Nov. 7 that he is not able to afford an attorney.
Davis questioned how the police department responded to the allegations against Jackson.
“That seems very very extreme, particularly when you juxtapose it with what we’ve been able to ascertain happened with a couple of other lieutenants,” Davis said.
In the letter Davis alleges that other lieutenants, who were white, faced no consequences for more severe offenses. In one instance, a white lieutenant kept his job after receiving a DUI that was eventually reduced to reckless driving. The other lieutenant had “multiple disciplinary infractions,” the letter says.
Davis said the lieutenant who received the DUI was arrested in a different police jurisdiction, but details about that arrest were not immediately available.
Jackson was the only black officer in the department to hold the rank of lieutenant or higher, and he was studying for his captain’s exam.
Jackson said shortly before his forced resignation he questioned the amount of citations for equipment and headlight violations written by an officer because they were being given primarily to black drivers.
“We normally write warnings for that,” Jackson said.
The officer that Jackson called out for the citations is the one who initiated the complaint about the $7, which is also something Davis mentions in his letter. He wrote that Jackson, an 11-year-veteran of the police department, had built “positive and trusting relationships in the city of Decatur.” He attended Black Lives Matter meetings and other “community building gatherings.” Jackson conducted “community training” on racial profiling “and improving police/citizen encounters” the letter says.
“In his tenure, Jackson is the only person of color to achieve the rank of lieutenant,” Davis wrote. “Currently the department has zero persons of color lieutenant or higher. Lt. Jackson was studying for the captain’s exam before he [resigned]. Of the 20 some supervisors in the Decatur Police Department, all but two are white. However, the city of Decatur High School is over 40 percent nonwhite.”
Davis encouraged the city to reinstate Jackson and remove any “adverse disciplinary comments” regarding this case from his personnel record. He invited city officials to meet with him to discuss Jackson’s case.
“It’s just a real weird set of circumstances to terminate a law enforcement officer over,” Davis said.
Merriss received the letter late on the evening of Nov. 7 and replied to Davis.
“Your letter certainly gives me concern,” Merriss said. “I would hope that you would agree that a late night review of these serious issues does not benefit anyone. I have several previously scheduled meetings in the morning but as soon as I get to the office tomorrow I will take an in-depth look at your letter and take in all information you have provided. I will follow-up with you once I have had this opportunity.”
Merriss added, “Currently, both Decatur Police staff members have had their appeals heard by an independent hearing officer. The recommendation of the hearing officer is to be provided to me within eight business days after the hearings were completed. That is important information that will also have to be taken into account.”
Both Jackson and Speed agreed on the basic facts of what led to their departure from the police department. On Oct. 11, Speed was conducting an inspection on a police car in search of a missing microphone. In the process he found $7 under the driver’s seat. Speed said his initial reaction was, “Oh, cool money.” Without really thinking it through, he gave $2 to Jackson and kept the remaining $5. Another officer suggested filing a report, but Speed decided to locate the officer who owned the money personally because he said doing the paperwork on it would be an administrative headache.
“So I stuck it in my pocket with the intention of to find out who it belonged to,” he said.
Speed said he didn’t consider the implications of giving Jackson the $2 because officers give each other small amounts of money routinely for buying coffee, lunch and other small expenses.
Jackson, whose wife is pregnant with their first child, said he didn’t really think about the implications of taking the $2 either.
“That was improper, but I wasn’t thinking,” he said. “It was improper. I get that. I finished my shift. I had too much other crap on my mind. I didn’t spend it.”
Jackson said he was forced to resign under threat of termination on Oct. 18 due to the failure to report the $7 found in the patrol car. Speed said his termination could be the end of his career as a police officer.
The racially-tinged aspect of Jackson’s case is notable considering the city spent almost two years reacting to allegations of racial profiling by officers. In response to the allegations, the department began tracking the race of individuals stopped by Decatur police officers.
Police Chief Mike Booker was a part of creating a “Community Action Plan” intended to promote diversity in Decatur. The process of creating the plan was set into motion in January of 2014. Former School Board member Don Denard said he had been profiled, and other black residents and visitors soon came forward with stories of their own experiences with city police officers. That discussion about profiling was broadened to include a conversation about all forms of diversity in the city, which led to the creation of the Community Action Plan. The City Commission in December accepted that plan without a formal vote.
Denard said he doesn’t know Jackson personally but added he, “Sounds like a good one who is getting a raw deal.”
“Chief Booker is responsible for what goes on in the police department,” Denard said. “If what is said about the existence of rogue cliques within the department is true, this would suggest on the surface that the chief knows nothing about them and is powerless to do anything about it. But that is far from the truth. As chief, he has to power and authority to find out what is going on in his department, to effect change, and to otherwise manage the culture of the department. He’s accountable, meaning the existence of rogue cliques within the department that defy his policies is not a defense.”