Judge blocks KDH limits on police complaints

By on January 25, 2012

A Superior Court judge has voided any Kill Devil Hills personnel policy that would prohibit its employees from taking complaints about the police department beyond the town’s administrative chain of command.

In an order Jan. 19, Judge Milton F. Fitch said such policies violate the right of employees to seek redress outside town channels.

It comes as more information emerges on complaints about the town’s police administration reaching the offices of the district attorney and local superior court judges.

“Over a period of time numerous complaints have been received alleging improper conduct and/or conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice against the Kill Devil Hills police chief and/or other Kill Devil Hills town officers having authority over the Kill Devil Hills Police Department,” Fitch wrote.

“These complaints have been and will continue to be investigated by appropriate officials.”

Lawyers representing the town have filed notice that they will appeal the ruling.

Fitch’s order was filed in Dare County the day before an affidavit was filed in Pasquotank County Superior Court calling for an investigation into how District Attorney Frank Parrish handled a police officer’s complaint against Chief Gary Britt.

Britt returned to work in December after a non-disciplinary, paid suspension. Such suspensions are generally imposed when a government official is the subject of an investigation or other legal matter.

Earlier this month, Dare County Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett confirmed that investigations of the police chief and town officials included one by the district attorney.

Fitch’s ruling referred to allegations, “including violation of personal rights of employees, town policy and procedure, violations of public policy and State law, including misconduct by public official, failure to discharge duties, and/or conduct which is prejudicial to the administration of justice.”

Notice of complaints were provided on July 4, 2011 to the town manager and “affected parties,” Fitch wrote. He said that on Sept. 11 an order was issued by Tillett to collect personnel file information.

“This order was not entirely complied with in a timely manner,” Fitch wrote. “Further complaints and problems have continued and increased.”

The order then turns to a new personnel policy with procedures police department employees must follow in filing grievances.

Finch wrote that “the Town has implemented new policies more prohibitive than prior policies.” The judge described the new policies as saying that issues related to employment conditions could only be communicated to supervisors up to the chief, the human resources officer or his designee and the town manager.

“Any other person is a violation of the Town’s Personnel Policy,” Fitch quoted the policy as saying.

“The provisions, especially in light of prior history, are contrary to the spirit and/or letter of the law of North Carolina’s constitutional protections afforded all citizens, the specific statutory rights to petition for removal of any sheriff or police chief; the whistleblower protections afforded as matter of public policy designated to promote and protect providing information of violations of law, abuse of authority, mismanagement, danger to public safety and matters of public concern.

“These measures substantially interfere with and impede redress.”

Fitch voided the policy, which he wrote were effective January 2012.

In an e-mail to the Voice, Mayor Sheila Davies said: “The Town of Kill Devil Hills has not implemented new policies as set forth in the Order of January 19, 2012. At no time has the Town of Kill Devil Hills implemented any policy under which anyone is denied the right to address with any person matters of public concern.”

Effectively immediately and until further notice, Fitch said, any Kill Devil Hills police department employee may present any complaint, grievance or appeal involving the police department to the senior resident Superior Court judge at a mailing address in Manteo.

Petitions or other flings addressing such issues by the District Attorney or his staff must now be presented to the office of the senior resident Superior Court judge of District One.

Fitch directed the town to communicate his order to police department employees and for the town manager to inform the court how it was carried out.

Assistant Town Manager Shawn Murphy, who is in charge of the Human Resources Division, said there would be no comment from town officials.

See related story: Filing sheds some light on chief’s suspension »

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