Former police chief Damian Gatlin should be reinstated to his old job with back pay and benefits retroactive to his April firing, which was done without cause and for political reasons, McComb’s Civil Service Commission announced Friday.
“We are charged with conducting an investigation to see if the action was made for political or religious reasons,” Commission chairman Don Lazarus said. “We found it was made for political reasons, and the whole thing was not in good faith.”
After a nearly five-hour hearing Wednesday, the commission went into executive session and deliberated for about 30 minutes, Lazarus and commissioner Terrance Turner voted 2-0 to immediately reinstate Gatlin.
Commissioner Dwight Martin, in one of his first official acts on the three-member panel, stepped out of the hearing before it started, noting that he supported the city’s position on the termination, although he also said he did not have enough information before the hearing and did not know any of the details surrounding the dismissal.
The city board fired Gatlin in a split vote on April 14, giving no specific reason for the dismissal.
Gatlin has since joined the District Attorney’s office as an investigator.
While the commission’s decision gives weight to Gatlin’s argument against his termination, it doesn’t bind the city board to reversing its action. Rather, the panel, much like a zoning commission, makes recommendations to the board about public safety personnel matters.
The board is likely to appeal the commission’s decision, and Mayor Quordiniah Lockley said selectmen will vote on what to do next during a special called meeting on Monday morning.
“As commission attorney Ashley Atkinson said, ‘Let's have the hearing because the city is just going to appeal the results,’ ” Lockley said.
Lazarus expected the matter to get drawn out in the courts.
“I expect it to go to Supreme Court and I think that will be wonderful because we’ve been fighting for months,” Lazarus said.
Asked about his intentions following the commission’s ruling, Gatlin said, “I’m not sure if I will accept the position or not, but it was not about the job. This was about doing what was right.”
Testimony on Wednesday revealed a rift between Gatlin and some of the department’s detectives, who said he micromanaged the office and disrupted the chain of command as a result.
The hearing revealed the city board fired Gatlin for breaking the chain of command by ordering detectives to take orders from him instead of lead detective Victoria Carter.
The city tried to prevent the civil service commission from granting Gatlin a hearing, saying police and fire chiefs lack the civil service protections that other public safety personnel have because of a change made to the city’s special charter. Commissioners cited a 2020 attorney general’s opinion that says state law specifically grants such protections to chiefs in McComb and supercedes the city charter.
Gatlin said he does not harbor ill will, but he went through with the hearing to benefit not just himself but other police chiefs.
“The whole purpose of this was for the citizens to know the truth, so that the truth can be exposed,” he said. “Others will benefit from this truth. Some will benefit from my pain, but walking with Christ this is something you have to account for.”
Gatlin said the whole ordeal could have been avoided if they would have told him why he was terminated and held the hearing in April when he appealed.
“It was no coincidence that this started on passion week,” he said, referencing the time from Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday. “The city had two lawyers and four witnesses. I had myself, two witnesses, and I had Christ.”
Gatlin also noted that he was reinstated on Sept. 17 — two years to the date of his original hiring.
Lazarus said the city blocked several attempts to hold the hearing by requesting an outright dismissal, asking him to recuse himself, gaining a continuance and seeking a retraining order.
Lazarus said he did not understand why the city asked for him to recuse himself from the hearing for prejudice because he said that Gatlin was entitled to a reason for his termination, not that he was entitled to his reinstatement during a court hearing in July.
He took it a step further, noting that the city’s recent appointee Dwight Martin, stepped out of the meeting on his own according.
“I got a letter from Mr. Martin after we set the hearing, and he said he was terribly mislead. He went on to say that he would never go against the wishes of the city board,” Lazarus said. “What we do as a commission is decide if the board is right or if the employee is right.”
Lazarus also said that the board not only terminated Gatlin in bad faith, but also circumvented the civil service when it reinstated Chief Detective Victoria Carter from administrative leave without a hearing.
Former detective Brian Boyd, who now works as a Lincoln County sheriff’s deputy, said he believed he and Gatlin were mischaracterized during the hearing.
“I didn’t appreciate being drug through the mud, but when you stand up for what is right, that can always happen,” he said. “I’m still in law enforcement and I have my integrity and character.”