Legal haze shrouds central KDH story

By on March 12, 2012

The story surrounding Kill Devil Hills and its police chief seems simple on the surface.

Two current and two former police officers filed petitions to remove or investigate Chief Gary Britt. They were addressed to the Dare County Superior Court and turned over to the District Attorney, as the law requires.

That process began in June, 2011, and since then, readers of local websites have taken sides and called for resignations of elected and appointed officials.

Conspiracy theories have cast a shadow over the discussion, diverting attention from the complaints against the chief and the way the town has dealt with them.

How did four petitions filed against a police chief explode into a controversy with such complexities?

In reviewing documents and reconstructing time lines, we can answer some questions. Others remain a mystery. We can even identify what might represent the “smoking gun,” documents that could vindicate the complaining officers or exonerate the chief.

In June 2011, the first officers addressed petitions to the Superior Court. More were filed in August 2011.

The next critical date is Sept. 13, 2011, when District Attorney Frank Parrish addressed a letter to Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett clearly stating that he intended to remove Britt from office.

Parrish cited the relevant statutes and referred to the petitions signed by the officers and county electors, a legal term for citizens supporting their claims. He informed the judge he would draft the petition for removal himself, and later, he sent a copy to Dennis Rose, the attorney representing the four officers.

That letter set in motion the decision by Kill Devil Hills officials to quietly put Britt on non-disciplinary probation while they conducted their own investigation in conjunction with the North Carolina League of Municipalities, which underwrites the town’s insurance. It was neither announced nor explained to the public.

After Britt was reinstated in December, three months later, town officials reluctantly disclosed that the investigation was the reason for the suspension and said the probe had revealed no intentional wrongdoing.

The District Attorney’s petition was never filed. Even though Parrish seemed prepared to do so, his attorney later said in a letter to the court that he found no legal reason to remove the chief. He also cited the town’s internal investigation.

A second set of questions centers on the town’s use of careful language to disguise what was occurring behind the scenes and, in some cases, deflect attention from the officers’ complaints to speculation implying judicial abuse of power.

Kill Devil Hills appealed a ruling by Superior Court Milton Fitch, who said the town had no right to implement a policy prohibiting police department employees from taking their grievances to outside agencies.

Contrary to repeated reports, the order did not compel them to file grievances with the court. It simply said the town could not deny them that option.

Town officials insisted that no such policy was ever put into place. The order has been put on hold until it is legally resolved.

The bulk of the appeal is what one might expect: a legal argument stating the judicial branch overstepped its bounds, especially regarding the judge’s order that town employees could file grievances with the Superior Court.

But placed within the town’s appeal was an affidavit from the assistant town manager. The affidavit describes a meeting between a judge and town officials that occurred shortly after the judge’s son had an encounter with two members of the police department.

The affiant then suggests a link between that event in early 2010 and the problems swirling around the chief almost two years later. He was not present at the meeting and merely relates what others told him. He fails to reveal the people who provided the details of his assertions.

The court cannot consider affidavits based on hearsay, so why was this document included in the filing? And why were there no affidavits from the people who actually attended the meeting?

It is hard not to suspect that it was placed there for another reason: To deflect attention from the town and direct suspicions elsewhere.

Intentional or not, it served that purpose. Reports have loosely connected documents to the assistant town manager’s affidavit to support a theory that Tillett and other officials were conspiring to retaliate against the chief.

A few bloggers have taken the conspiracy theory several steps farther, suggesting the implausible idea that the judge, the former town attorney, lawyers for the officers and the officers themselves are in it together.

This would require believing that all of these people are willing to risk reputations and careers, plus invest large amounts of time and money in a legal battle, just because two police officers confronted a judge’s son two years ago.

Another question: Why did the town choose to appeal the judge’s order concerning a personnel policy it claims it never intended to implement?

The town’s contention that the review panel investigating the police department was an independent body is also worth questioning.

According to a statement from the town disclosing the investigation, the review panel was put together with the assistance of the League of Municipalities.

Kill Devil Hills counsel informed the Voice the league did not conduct the review. When pressed on who organized the panel and paid for it, and what the panel’s marching orders were, the attorney said he could not provide that information.

We posed the same questions to the town and asked whether the panel interviewed any of petitioning officers who were fired or forced to resign from the KDHPD.

We have not received responses to those queries, either.

While it is easy to stipulate that an investigation from the District Attorney would be considered independent, any panel paid for and assembled by the town or its legal counsel would be difficult to classify as an arms-length review.

It has also been reported this “independent” panel found no merit in the officers’ complaints. Yet among the recommendations outlined in the policy change that the town says did not exist, most appear to advise action in areas central to the officer’s petitions.

The officers maintained that negative information was contained in their files without their knowledge. The recommendations of the panel state: “The official file shall contain all original documents as required . . . this must include all warnings when they are issued.”

The petitions allege the chief kept his own set of files that differed from the official human resource files. Again, the panel recommended: “There are to be mirrored copies when desired and located in the police department that have been properly filed in the Official Personnel File.”

Even the much maligned quota allegations were addressed by the panel: “No use of minimum individual arrest, citations or general enforcement duties will be used as a tool in performance evaluations.”

In lieu of the recommended changes, it is difficult to dismiss the officers’ allegations as without merit.

The town also made the panel’s findings a part of the chief’s personnel file, essentially shielding it from the public and media.

All of which leads to the “smoking gun.”

When the District Attorney informed the court of his intent to remove Britt, personnel files were ordered delivered to the court because those files comprised a major portion of the petitioner’s allegations cited as reasons to remove the chief.

Copies were made of those files and the originals returned.

It seems to us those files are crucial and would easily resolve the primary question surrounding the allegations.

The files either vindicate the officer’s allegations of falsification or they exonerate the chief.

Now the town’s lawyers are trying to get the copies back.

Is it possible to appoint a truly independent panel to compare the files in possession of the court with the official files maintained in the town’s human resources department?

What is now a quite complex issue might be settled once and for all if the contents of those files could see the light of day.

Researched and written by Russ Lay and Rob Morris.

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Comments

Common Sense

March 20, 2012 11:29 am

Anytime there is an investigation and attorneys are involved, you do not speak to the media! If you have something that needs to be said or addressed, your attorney does it for you. Some people here need to let the courts work this out. It did not happen overnight and will not be solved overnight. Just because you feel you may need to chime in does not mean this situation will speed up for your pleasure. In the mean time, turn your bored attention to something that adds to the town rather than detracts.

James

March 20, 2012 12:00 am

@ Frank Moore and Interested. This is just so typical of people who have lost the arguement. The only thing they fall back on is to personally strike out at people who disagree with them instead of debating the facts. Although I may not agree with the Voice and their writings at least they argue the facts with others not attack them on a personal level. I orginally thought Moore’s remark was based on my various responses but he seems to be spending quite a bit of time here himself. As for Interested, original thoughts are much more meaningful. As for this whole story, it will be the court system that will put this to rest. The beginning is the ruling by Judge Hinton, hopefully the rest will not be far behind.

Frank Moore

March 19, 2012 9:17 pm

@ Sandra I have a very busy and enjoyable life. I have no axe to grind with Britt, wouldn’t know the man if he was sitting in the room with me, but there is apparently still something very wrong with his situation. It won’t go away. Just because people question the way certain issues have been handled does not mean that people keep pouring gas on the fire, the fire is smoldering on its own accord. Britt needs to man up and speak up rather than letting others, like yourself, speak for him, then and only then will this story be put to rest.

Toni

March 19, 2012 8:17 pm

@Sandra…..Even the group of very very biased investigators who were looking out for the best interest of the town said that Britt had serious management issues.

Those same management issues along with the way he treats CERTAIN employees is why all of this is happening.

Someone above had a good point…..Have you ever had to work for the man Sandra?

Sandra

March 19, 2012 7:27 pm

@Just Saying, thanks for putting that article out there. Unless I’m missing something, it’s obvious where the fire started, and it’s obvious who keeps pouring the gasoline on it. So…where’s the smoke coming from??? @Frank Moore, get a life.

Just Saying

March 18, 2012 5:28 pm

http://www.dailyadvance.com/opinion/our-views/panel-should-investigate-tillett8217s-feud-kdh-969919#.T2E-uaTusyg.blogger

This article does a better job connecting the dots and explaining the situation.

Frank Moore

March 17, 2012 5:36 pm

@ Curious from reading previous reports on various things, Lowe’s espically, you must live either on Ketch or Landing, so when you go past my house and you see me working in the yard please stop and we will drink a soda. I love meeting my neighbors.

Frank Moore

March 17, 2012 4:02 pm

@ Curious didn’t say I knew it all, seems like that was left up yo Iris and Sandra. I’m glad I moved here to fix up a little piece of paradise. Thanks for welcoming me to KDH because I do love it.

Curious

March 17, 2012 8:14 am

@ Frank Moore – so glad you moved here to fix up our little piece of paradise. It’s nice to know there’s somebody here who knows it all.

hmmm

March 16, 2012 2:39 pm

Hey Iris, it is really great that you have so many nice things to say about Britt, but let me ask you this…In those same 40 years that you have known him, have you ever had to work for him?

iris

March 16, 2012 2:15 pm

At Frank: I am glad I convinced you, I wish I had spoken up earlier too. My problem with your statements are, there is still smoke so there “MUST” still be a fire.
It still has smoke Frank, because people have no proof, yet they keep adding gas. If they had any solid evidence of wrong doing, don’t you think they would have brought it out by now?
I agree sandra, at this point he has fought long and hard enough, and has proven his point. I wouldn’t blame him at all if he stepped down.

Interested

March 16, 2012 11:17 am

Russ, you may as well give up trying to explain to James. He just does not get it! He will never admit that he might be misinterpreting things, or he is simply unwilling to concede he might be wrong.

I agree with Frank Moore. James certainly does need to get a life.

Sandra

March 16, 2012 7:53 am

I have to agree Iris. It takes a strong man to deal with the scrutinization Britt has had to endure over the past 2 years. But, even if he did step down and resign at this point, I don’t believe it would be an admission of guilt. He is an educated and experienced man. He has other options than to work for KDH. But, he has chosen to hang in there and continue to do his job. That is admirable. How many could deal with the stress it must cause him and continue to do that?

Frank Moore

March 16, 2012 4:43 am

Ok, Iris has convinced me that Chief Britt does everything by the book and has done nothing wrong. Everyone else is wrong. If only she had spoken up earlier KDH would have been spared !! My only problem with her statements are there is still smoke so there must still be a fire.

Iris

March 15, 2012 11:14 pm

It is amazing to me that this has gone on for 2 years. All the people involved here, their lives are on hold. Does anyone have any solid facts here? Any evidence that the police chief has done ANYTHING wrong? I am pretty sure if they had any evidence that would hold up in court, this would be over! In a small town like Kill Devil Hills, this bad publicity with no facts, makes the people doubt the character of their chief. I have known chief Britt for 40 some years, and can personally tell the people of Kill devil Hills, your chief is honest, he is fair, and just the fact that he refuses to step down, turn his back on the people, even when some have turned their back on him. This shows the character of a man who knows, he has done nothing wrong. I am sure for Britt, he knows to step down now would show a man who is either guilty, or gives up when the going gets tough. I assure you Britt is neither.

James

March 15, 2012 12:53 am

@ Frank Moore, I very much enjoy the life that I have so I think I’ll keep it. But I certainly appreciate your obtuse advice.

James

March 15, 2012 12:44 am

Russ, you covered all of that info in other stories but felt it was necessary to cover it all again so your point is missed. Also trust in the fact that everyone realizes that this was put in the commentary section for the effect, although it’s still hard to tell the difference between your news stories and commentaries.

Russ Lay

March 14, 2012 10:58 pm

James–you think the D.A. is a fact that ties in. I say we have covered that story in detail; including running a full article on why the D.A. says he decided not to file his petition. The rest of the D.A. story involves a different attorney and seven other affiants and has nothing to do with the subject of this story.

And, I believe if you check, this story is filed under “commentary”, and was not presented as a news story. So it is our opinion.

Toni

March 14, 2012 8:39 pm

Sandra Wrote….”You would think that after 2 years, this could have all been settled by the Town.”

I 100% agree with Sandra!!!!

If they would have terminated the Chief two years ago, the Kill Devil Hills Police Department and the Town itself would not be the laughing stock of Eastern North Carolina.

Frank Moore

March 14, 2012 8:24 pm

Get a life James !!

James

March 14, 2012 12:44 pm

Russ, All of what you said may be true, the problem is the public becomes suspicious when some news outlets leave out facts that don’t seem to follow their perceived agenda. Optics are everything.

Russ Lay

March 14, 2012 12:21 pm

James: Two, or even three newspapers can look at the same information and come to different conclusions, follow different leads, or even disagree on what is important and what is not.

That is why it is better to have three or four outlets. Even with “facts”, people come to different conclusions.

It may be confusing, but be thankful such a small area has four news outlets covering many stories, rather than one.

James

March 13, 2012 11:12 pm

Will, you make some very valid points. The problem is that there have been various news outlets that can’t seem to keep fact and opinion seperate. Add to that the omission of facts that don’t help their various agendas. All of this causes confusion when readers are trying to get a good grasp on what’s happening in regards to this or any issue facing our town.

Will

March 13, 2012 10:31 pm

Why would anyone be against “stirring the pot of public opinion”? That is a GOOD thing. People need to be able to think for themselves, use critical thinking skills and have access to accurate, factual info. regarding their community regardless of how shocking or unpleasant it is.

Sandra

March 13, 2012 9:48 pm

This article is below my standards for even commenting on, but I will anyway, because I have to .I have to wonder why this article includes a police car, and most articles about this whole circus starts out with the first sentence beginning with the the Police Chief, when there are so many others involved. Judges, Town Managers, Town attorneys, DA’s etc., but your articles all start with charges against the Police Chief. I have to sympathize with all the individuals, families and their children who have been affected by this kind of reporting, or as James said, “stirring the pot of public opinon”. You would think that after 2 years, this could have all been settled by the Town. It’s apparent that someone or the “good ole boys” of the Town are hiding something. Thanks James for filling in the blanks that weren’t included in this time line.

James

March 13, 2012 8:20 pm

The D.A. issue is part of this case and leaving it out of your timeline just seems odd whether you are doing another story or not. I notice you didn’t dispute my statement about the hearing the judge should have called for in relation to personnel records. Maybe you could have put those facts in your commentary. You put a very differnt spin on that particular issue.

Russ Lay

March 13, 2012 7:17 pm

James: Judge Fitch’s order reads, and I quote directly, “Any Kill Devil Hills Department employee MAY (emphasis added) present any complaint, grievance or appeal involving the Police Department or conduct, disciplinary action or employment to the Senior Resident Superior Judge…” It does not order anyone to do anything.

As to the D.A., the issue involved eight other complaints and we are working on a separate story on that issue.

James

March 13, 2012 1:34 pm

First, the Town appealed Judge Fitch’s ruling because it stated ” Town of Kill Devil Hills had changed its grievance policy for police department employees and had therefore infringed upon their rights. He ordered that all grievances and complaints of police officers be sent to Resident Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett of the 1st Judicial District, which includes Dare County” The Order was the reason for their appeal not a policy that wasn’t in place. Second, If this is a timeline of facts why no mention of Judge Hinton’s ruling that there was no probable cause for the removal OF the D.A which was filed by the police officers involed in this issue. Which is certainly part of the whole situation. Third, why no mention of a hearing that should have taken place prior to the Town turning over personnel records. Maybe they want them back because the Judge in question did not follow legal procedure and had no right to have them in the first place.

Maybe we at the point that we should let the Court System figure all of this out. Instead of just stirring the pot of public opinion.

Interested

March 13, 2012 11:04 am

This is a great article. Right on target. Please continue your investigation to keep the public informed, and to hopefully bring this to some resolution.

It seems there are many allegations made and investigations started that are never brought to any conclusion.

Keep up the good work!

Frank Moore

March 13, 2012 7:53 am

Excellent reporting Russ and Rob,let’s see what happens next. The light of day can resolve this issue, once and for all. So long as there is still a “smoking gun” out there this sore will continue to fester and continue to show our lovely town, Kill Devil Hills, as some good old boys playground. We deserve much better than this !!!

Charles Dail

March 13, 2012 5:57 am

MAN! you can’t make this S$ up. I put my money on the judge’s orders and findings. They are not stupid! The town will kick this can down the road, costing big bucks to try and save face from appearing stupid, this tactic is not new,this is what they do, because their insurance co. is now calling the shots. This cloud will go away at some point,retirement,settlements, and etc. will happen until the next storm.

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