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Monday, November 22, 2010

Reprint request: FORT SMITH-Commission Reinstates, Demotes Fired Officer

Friday, March 6, 2009 1:43 PM CST

The Civil Service Commission sent a clear and explicit message Thursday when it reinstated but also demoted a former police sergeant for violation of Fort Smith Police Department policies: Preferential treatment will not be tolerated, especially with regards to drunken-driving offenses.

Calvin Treat was a sergeant for the last two-thirds of his 23-year police career when he was fired Feb. 6 after failing to arrest and report a fellow officer suspected of driving while intoxicated.

Police Chief Kevin Lindsey fired both Treat and the fellow officer, Cpl. Donnie Ware, who won reinstatement after a three-hour appeal hearing Wednesday.

In the Dec. 28 incident, Ware was stopped for speeding, and Treat, the ranking officer among several who arrived on the scene, administered a portable breath to Ware. Treat reportedly said the test came out just under the legal intoxication limit of 0.08 blood alcohol content, but the result was later shown to be 0.19. Treat arranged for Ware's wife to pick him up. He did not
file a report on the incident.

Treat appealed his termination before the commission Thursday, but his reinstatement was bittersweet at best: He was demoted to corporal and given a 30-day suspension without pay.

In announcing the decision, made after an hour of deliberation, commission chairman Charles Ledbetter stated:

"This commission has responsibility and oversight for making policy for the Police Department. We are not going to tolerate preferential treatment as it relates to the enforcement of DWI."

Ledbetter went on to stress that arrest decisions should not be based on "who you are, your station in life or your position in the city."

During the six-hour hearing, numerous officers of all ranks testified they were not aware of a zero-tolerance DWI policy and believed they had discretion when handling DWI cases involving fellow police officers or city officials.

Their testimony supported arguments by Treat's attorney, Sam "Chip" Sexton III, that his client acted in good faith based upon past experience that allowed for such discretion.

One such experience was an incident in November 2005, when officer Billy Moore - the same officer who stopped Ware - pulled then-City Administrator Bill Harding over at 7:30 a.m. for driving on the left side of the road.

Moore called his supervisor, Treat, who later reported that he contacted his supervisor and was given three options: to take Harding to the IHOP for a meeting Harding said he had planned with then-city director Ken Pyle; take Harding home; or arrest him.

Treat's supervisor, Capt. Larry Ranells, recalled the incident differently. He testified that he ran through several options with Treat and then told him to "hold whatcha got" while he called the police chief for advice.

Ranells said then-police chief Randy Reed wanted Harding to be treated like any other citizen and advised that Treat should go to the scene and determine if Harding should be arrested and brought in for a breath test. However, when Ranells called Treat back, Treat told him Moore had already taken Harding to the IHOP.

Four hours later, Harding had an accident causing property damage and was arrested then. He had been returned to his car by Pyle after their meeting. The earlier incident was not mentioned on the arrest report until March 2006, when Treat's report about the three choices was entered as a supplement.

The comparisons between the Harding and Ware incidents led to persistent questions about preferential treatment and zero tolerance by Ledbetter and attorney Rick Wade, who represented the city and Lindsey at the hearing.

Wade repeatedly asked how to explain preferential treatment for police officers and city officials to the general public.

Ledbetter wondered pointedly whether the public or police supervisors "learned anything" from the November 2005 incident, and if rank and file police officers got the zero-tolerance message since then.

After the hearing, Wade said the commission's decision made clear that inside the department, the police chief will not tolerate preferential treatment, especially in DWI cases.

"The message was sent loud and clear," he said. "I would be very surprised if any officers currently working under this chief ever violate that policy. ... If there was a gray area, it's now black and white."

Wade said he took Ledbetter's zero-tolerance declaration to mean the panel will not go through the debate again.

"If the police chief decides to terminate someone for violating this policy, they'll uphold his decision," he said.

Lindsey said the people of Fort Smith are the winners in this situation because now there is clear direction from the Civil Service Commission.

He said Treat's reinstatement does not dilute the zero-tolerance message.

"He was reinstated with demotion. That's a strong blow," Lindsey said. "Supervisors have an above-average responsibility to make sure the right thing is done, and he didn't do that as a supervisor."

Sexton said he was pleased his client was reinstated, but the demotion was an "awfully harsh penalty" for an officer who acted in good faith.

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