Jury socks it to Mocksville for police firings

Published 9:51 am Thursday, May 19, 2016

A tornado — in the form of a federal jury’s stunning $4.1 million judgment — hit the Mocksville Town Hall last week. At first glance, the town’s liability insurance policy — for $1 million — seems woefully short. The town’s coffers are in jeopardy as a police department personnel dispute from five years ago went sour.

The Town of Mocksville suffered far more than a black eye during the eight-day trial as all the dirty laundry from the police department was aired in U.S. District Court. Three fired policemen painted an unseemly picture of a department that had lost its moral compass and operated by good-old-boy rules that changed with the situation and depended on the person. Among things the jury heard:

• A drunk police officer once backed his cruiser into another car in the police parking lot but wasn’t charged or even given a Breathalyzer. He was merely sent home.

• An officer once broke into a locked FBI car at a school but wasn’t charged.

• Police chief Robert Cook stored liquor in the police department freezer and was spotted drinking in public while on the job.

• Chief Cook, not a licensed police officer, sometimes acted as if he were.

Certainly, there had been a bitter division among the police officers. Certainly, Chief Cook failed to properly discipline his officers. And certainly the Mocksville officers distrusted each other and quarrelled among themselves as a power struggle ensued.

Chaos. Back-stabbing. Lack of control. That’s hardly the picture of an otherwise vibrant, scrubbed-clean, progressive town that has been the model for others.

Five years ago, three town officers, Ken Hunter, Rick Donathan and Jerry Medlin, secretly complained to the Gov. Beverly Perdue’s office using a Tracfone to avoid being traced. An SBI agent was assigned to investigate, but the inquiry spent most of its time trying to determine who had made the call, not whether the complaint was true. After the Tracfone was linked to Hunter, the three were fired.

Both Cook and town manager Christine Bralley said the secret call did not prompt the firings. But Cook had never fired anyone despite a laundry list of other bad behavior. Cook’s reasons for firing the three were for infractions that were either petty or old. The jury obviously believed the call to the governor’s office had everything to do with the dismissals.

The case had seemed a slam dunk for the town because the officers were “at will” employees. When the officers’ attorneys established a 1st Amendment violation, however, Mocksville was in serious financial jeopardy.

The jury’s decision was swift and punitive. The jurors spent only a few hours reaching their decision, including adding up how much money to award.

What does Mocksville do now? Certainly the attorneys will try to reduce the verdict, but nothing is certain. As it stands, the town owes $4.1 million. Meanwhile, the fired officers want their jobs back. They are likely to win the judge’s approval for that, creating a problem remixing them back into the force.

Chief Cook retired several years ago and been replaced by Chief Todd Penley, who has the administrative experience that Cook lacked. The Mocksville town board, however, must evaluate whether it can avoid similar personnel problems in the future. If not, it’s time to merge the town force with the Davie County Sheriff’s Department and provide a professional human resources director capable of keeping abreast of ever-changing employment laws. Gone are the days when employers can ignore the rules of the road.

The Mocksville trial may become a casebook study in how not to operate a police department.  Cook kept no personnel records. “It wasn’t my policy to write things down,” he testified. “We didn’t manage with notes and sticky pads.”

Cook is a nice fellow and served the town and county for many years in a variety of roles, but he was out of his depth when dealing with tricky and contentious personnel issues.

The town’s savings account — money that could be used for recreation, recruiting new industry or a variety of good things — is now on the hook to settle a court judgment.

The past two weeks have been painful and embarrassing — and out of character — for the Town of Mocksville.

— Dwight Sparks