Chancellor reverses Bowen decision, reinstates him as police chief

Jacob Smith • Nov 20, 2017 at 11:16 AM

Wilson County Chancellor C.K. Smith wasted no time Monday morning to reverse a hearing officer’s previous decision and reinstate former Lebanon police Chief Scott Bowen.

Bowen filed the appeal in chancery court based on the previous ruling on his firing by then Lebanon Mayor Philip Craighead in 2014.

Smith also ordered Bowen to be awarded back pay for the three-year-long legal battle.

“We thought it would happen all along if we saw a level playing field,” said Bowen’s attorney Keith Williams.

“The first court we were in was a circus. I just want to go on record and say that.”

“In the end, all we wanted was our day in court in front of a proper independent judge,” said Bowen. “This decision is just another example of how certain department heads were treated by former Mayor Craighead.”

Smith said he came to the decision after he realized the evidence submitted by the city violated Bowen’s constitutional right to due process. ­­­

According to Smith, hearing officer Brett Gipson made his original decision based on a section in the city charter that gave the mayor the right to fire certain city employees.

“I don’t think the city can put out their own rules that trump somebody’s constitutional rights,” said Smith. “That’s essentially what their position is.”

Smith told the court none of the evidence submitted by the city in the hearing could be entered legally because it violated Bowen’s rights.

“There’s supposed to be all this evidence supporting the city’s defense, and if you consider illegally entered evidence, there is,” said Smith. “If you strike all of the illegal evidence, though, you strike 100 percent of the evidence. It seems to me like [Gipson] just ignored what the code section said.”

Smith came to his ruling after five days of reading more than 1,100 pages of evidence submitted by both legal teams.

“You guys asked for six days, and I used every bit of it,” said Smith. “I worked at least 10 hours a day. I was up until 10 last night and woke up at 5:30 this morning to finish it off.”

Smith recommended to Bowen a separate hearing regarding the retaliatory discharge for which he sued the city, though the city’s attorneys alleged they had seen nothing about this. Smith did not believe the motion would benefit Bowen in any way, though.

“I’ve already ruled in favor of reinstatement, or if he’s not reinstated then front pay and back pay, so the only thing we’re really talking about here is attorney fees and court costs,” said Smith. “To be honest, I’m not even sure the court awards attorney fees and court costs.”

Williams said he had hoped to get Bowen back in office as soon as possible, but according to current Lebanon Mayor Bernie Ash, that may not be anytime soon.

“He hasn’t actually been reinstated,” said Ash. “Chancellor Smith made a ruling, but it has to come out in writing and when it does, we will appeal. It’s not like he’s going to be in office tomorrow.”

City attorney Andy Wright declined to comment due to a pending unresolved legal issue he said still has to be discussed in court.

Current police Chief Mike Justice assured the public it has nothing to worry about in regards to the police force doing its job.

“I just want to say that this is probably going to be a longer process than just a ruling,” said Justice. “The public should know that no matter who’s in charge, we have extremely competent officers and employees over here. So no matter who’s at the helm, the public has nothing to worry about.”

Craighead fired Bowen after an incident that involved the city’s Public Safety division.

A change in the city’s charter in 2014 gave Craighead the sole authority to fire Bowen without the council’s approval. It also made a provision for Bowen and potentially future department heads in similar situations to appeal disciplinary actions before an administrative law judge.

Prior to the change, the mayor and at least four city councilors’ approval was needed to fire department heads.

The same city charter change the council approved also made Public Safety its own department within the city. When that change took place, five Public Safety officers, including current police Chief Mike Justice, continued to use the police department’s originating agency identification number for access to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center database.

Wright previously said Bowen told a police administrator to contact TBI and ask the agency whether the five officers could access a state a federal database for criminal history, driver’s license, tag information and other sensitive information used by law enforcement agencies.

Since Public Safety became its own department through the charter change, it didn’t have its own identification number for the TBI system because it previously operated as a division of the police department. Each law enforcement agency is assigned its own identification number.

Wright also said Bowen was correct to notify TBI of the Public Safety officers, but it was the way he went about doing it that ultimately cost him his job. He said Bowen was fired for not telling anyone about the noncompliance issue between the five Lebanon Public Safety officers and TBI.

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