Firing focus of hearing

Former McComb Police Chief Damien Gatlin speaks at a Civil Service Commission hearing Wednesday.

After six months of deliberations and court battles, the McComb Civil Service Commission held a hearing to delve into the termination of former Police Chief Damian Gatlin, bringing to light interdepartmental disputes that festered over the boiling point.

“I am being painted as this big bad wolf. I beg to differ. That is not my character,” said Gatlin, who was fired without explanation in April. “I told the board. I told the mayor. I told the selectmen, you don’t give me my authority or my power. It comes from God.

“You can’t please nobody, and I find myself standing here fighting for — forget the job — I was here for the citizens of McComb.”

Commissioner Don Lazarus said the panel reached a decision around 2:30 p.m. but did not say what it was, saying he was still writing the decision and it would not be ready by the end of the day Wednesday.

Lazarus and commissioner Terrance Turner reached the decision. A third commissioner, the newly appointed Dwight Martin, supported the city’s termination and left the hearing before it even started.

The meeting had issues from the onset, with the city arguing that police chiefs lack civil service protections and are not entitled to hearings to contest their termination. City attorneys asked for the hearing to be dismissed outright on two occasions, once in April and before it took place Wednesday.

The city also sought a restraining order against commissioners to prevent them from granting Gatlin a hearing, but Circuit Judge David Strong quashed that, saying the city’s argument fell “flat on its face,” clearing the way for the hearing.

Angela Cockerham and Matthew Harrell, representing the city, said the city had cause to fire Gatlin. They cited an argument he had with Detective Victoria Carter, the erosion of the chain of command and department employees’ fear of retaliation.

The hearing’s focal point was an argument between Gatlin and Carter that took place on April 3 regarding the management of the department’s investigations unit.

Every person’s testimony painted a slightly different view of the day.

Carter, along with detective Delre Smith and evidence custodian Ashley Williams, painted Gatlin as aggressive, noting that he frequently interjected his opinion when Carter spoke at department meetings.

In April, the back-and-forth between Gatlin and Carter boiled over into raised voices, ending with Gatlin telling Carter to leave. She told him she would and put her gun, badge and keys on the table. Gatlin and Carter both said the argument was inevitable.

Part of the dispute centered around former detective Brian Boyd taking long lunches.

Another dispute involved Gatlin telling Carter and detectives that the chief or Deputy Chief Rodney Nordstorm should be notified and present at all division meetings, but Carter, Smith and Williams said the chiefs did not need to attend.

The city’s argument for firing Gatlin was that he broke the chain of command when he instructed detectives to follow his orders over Carter’s. But Gatlin felt as chief he had authority to override Carter.

“I was trying to be the chief,” he said. “I gave a directive to not have meetings without myself or the deputy chief present. That was all I asked because we had too much going on, and it always surrounds the detective division.”

Gatlin took it a step further, saying that the city board broke the chain of command and civil service rules by reinstating Carter without a hearing. He said he has disciplined others without issue, and couldn’t understand why it was a problem with Carter.

He said this was the first time the city board took action against him for disciplining an officer, although it was not the first time he was reprimanded by the board.

“I had been on the hot seat many times for frivolous accusations, for talking to the city attorney,” he said. “Now I’m standing here fighting her. I was accused and written up ... by Selectman (Devante) Johnson for talking to the city attorney about a legal matter.”

The city also argued that Gatlin was treating Carter unfairly, noting that Smith testified that Gatlin “micromanaged” Carter and treated her with less respect than other division leaders.

Gatlin said he “knew where this was going” and noted that he promoted Carter to lead detective.

Another argument was that Williams, the evidence custodian, feared retaliation after the argument. She said Gatlin made her “uncom-fortable” when he told her not to get tangled up with Carter and that he “put her in this position for a reason.”

Gatlin rebutted this, noting that he and Williams go to the same church and he partly put her in the position because he wanted someone to pray with, and that he knew she was able to perform well.

Boyd painted a different picture of Carter, noting an incident where she yelled expletives at a Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics officer who walked into the detectives’ office space without speaking to her.

Gatlin affirmed this happened in his testimony, noting that he received a call from the MBN officer’s supervisor about the incident. He asked Carter to apologize.

City human resources director Donjurea Davis also said Carter, Williams and Smith turned in reports of the incident but Gatlin and Boyd had not.

The commission ended the meeting after Cockerham questioned Gatlin, and went into executive session.

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