Police chief challenged:
Loudon law enforcement rift widens after election allegations surface

Vicky Newman News Herald

A hotly contested primary election may have served to widen a long-standing rift between the Loudon City Council and Loudon Police Department. The disagreement underscored differences among council members Monday, resulting in table pounding to emphasize respective points. 

Amidst a laundry list of complaints against police, the fact that two Loudon police officers threw their hats into the ring for elected positions may have affected the department's relationship with Loudon County Sheriff's Department, some council members suggested during the regular May workshop meeting.

Councilmen have taken Loudon Police Chief James "Bear" Webb to task repeatedly in recent months, sometimes pertaining to public complaints about perceived bias and misuse of authority by some officers.

Council members Lynn Millsaps, Gene Lambert and Lewis "Charlie Brown" Garner grilled Webb again Monday concerning election allegations.

At issue, initially, were the political advertisements in the News-Herald endorsing sheriff candidates. A quarter-page advertisement for candidate Steve Cook ran in the April 4-5 issue, and included the statement, "Endorsed by the Loudon Police Officers Association." The ad was paid for by the Committee to Elect Steve Cook. On April 11-12, a full-page ad endorsing incumbent Sheriff Tim Guider appeared. That advertisement was paid for by the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 21.

Police officers who ran for office did not run for sheriff. Loudon Police Officer Mike Newman, formerly assistant to the chief, ran for Commissioner District 4, but was unsuccessful in that bid for office. Police officer  Brian Jenkins ran for County Commissioner District 1, Seat A, and was successful.

Council members indicated the contested races had created some internal divisions and muddied waters with political alliances.

Lambert broached the topic.  "What are you going to do about this rift between the sheriff's department campaign headquarters and your office?" Lambert asked. He added,  "The law says you can support anybody you want to, but not while you are on duty. I got a lot of complaints about campaign signs at the police department.... If there is a problem, now that we have the same sheriff, I hope if there's differences you can work it out."

Webb said, "The car you saw was ..." Garner interrupted, "It was not one car." Webb responded, "I believe it was a private individual's car that was parked there. To my knowledge, there were not any police officers campaigning on duty - not that works for the police department."

Webb said  he felt there was no problem between his office and Sheriff Tim Guider. "I certainly know of no problems, we work together fine," Webb said. "His platform was working together with other law enforcement."

Garner said Loudon citizens perceived that police are guilty of a myriad of offenses - tailgating and profiling citizens, stopping them for little or no reason and subjecting them to unnecessary searches of vehicles, purses and persons.

Webb said perception is not necessarily reality.

Garner referred to a specific incident that apparently happened recently. He said a woman had been tailgated and stopped by police on Highland Park Avenue. Although Garner did not reveal details, Webb appeared to have knowledge about the incident referenced. "Do you have probable cause if it is a burned out headlight to search a vehicle?" Garner asked. "Is that your position?"

Webb responded that officers have a right to search and are encouraged to do so for safety reasons. "They have a right to search any compartment that they can lunge and reach for a weapon. ... They (officers) don't know until they conduct a search if drugs or a weapon are there.  Isn't it your position that you want drugs off the street? The Supreme Court provides that we can use searches."

Council members also relayed complaints that city police officers had pulled over outside a Loudon polling place to talk with candidates in a tent, hampering voters' ability to get around to vote. Garner related the complaint he had heard. Lambert said he witnessed that happening. "I stood on my porch and watched; I saw him stop twice before lunch," Lambert said.

Councilman Mike Cartwright waded into the discussion, saying that he was at the polling place, and did not witness the behaviors about which the other council members spoke. Cartwright, who was a candidate for Loudon County trustee, said perhaps one police car pulled over, and the officer was speaking to him about borrowing picnic tables for a barbecue. "I'm telling you what happened," Cartwright said to Lambert, pounding the table for emphasis. Lambert, banging the table himself in turn, countered that he had seen more than one officer.

Webb, smiling at the council, said he thought the officer had stopped at the tent to eat hot dogs, and not to engage in political activities. "He was there some of the time to eat hot dogs - that's my explanation," he said.

The encounter between Webb and council members included discussions about a part-time police officer who lives outside the service area and complaints that records about stops do not always accurately reflect what occurred.

Garner said he simply wanted all the problems corrected. "You have a job to do and I want you to do it. I am tired of getting complaints and calls at 11 o'clock at night. It is getting ridiculous."

Garner added that he felt Webb does not take the council's directions seriously. "I feel like you are laughing at us when you leave here. You disrespect the city council."

Webb said, "I assure you that is not my intent."

Garner, speaking again about the tailgating and search incident discussed earlier, requested to view the videotape from the officer's vehicle. He was told it was not available because the camera had malfunctioned. Garner said, "Lord-a-mercy. Isn't that amazing? We spend thousands of dollars on video cameras and it never worked. It is getting ridiculous."

Lynn Mills, city manger, said, "That is being addressed, and it will not happen again."

Webb said the officer's assigned vehicle had been hit by a herd of deer and was in the repair shop. The replacement vehicle he borrowed was one with a different type of video camera, and the officer did not know how to use it.

Lambert conceded that police officers have a difficult job, but added that the council represents the people, and have a right to ask questions.