It will be up to a three-member panel of non-uniformed city employees to decide if disciplinary action imposed by Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks against Officer Chris Powell will stand, be modified, or thrown out.
Hubanks suspended Powell for 20 days, ordered him to attend and participate in counseling, and removed him as a Field Training Officer after a female officer filed a complaint alleging that Powell sexually harassed her and touched her improperly.
The three-member panel, composed of Assistant City Attorney Daryl Taylor, City Collector Albert Ridgell and Delois Williams of the city Street Department, heard Powell’s appeal Friday afternoon in a session that lasted more than an hour.
The female officer, who is black, filed the complaint against Powell, who is white, on Jan. 13.. Powell was placed on administrative leave while two separate investigations were conducted, the first by the department’s Office of Professional Standards, also known as Internal Affairs and the second by deputy police chiefs Kelvin Sargent and Ricky Whitmore.
Hubanks said he felt the initial investigation, conducted by the late Lt. JoAnn Bates, “fell short,” so he assigned Sargent and Whitmore to conduct the second investigation. Bates died Tuesday night at her home in Redfield.
“One officer felt she was being harassed and the other officer’s career was on the line, so I wanted an investigation I could rely on,” Hubanks said.
The two investigations took more than 13 weeks to complete and Powell questioned why it took so long.
Powell, who is the president of the Pine Bluff Chapter of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association, denied harassing the female officer, citing the initial investigation, which found that there was not enough evidence to support the complaint.
He also said he and his attorney attempted to get the complete investigation file, which included a series of photographs, and so far had not received all the information requested.
Hubanks apologized for the fact that Powell got only half of the investigation file initially, saying there were “issues with I.A. (Internal Affairs) but I’m not going to trample on anyone’s grave.”
Included in the evidence were three black and white photographs with no date and time stamp purporting to show a white hand touching the female. Powell denied several times that the hands were his, telling the panel that he wears a wedding ring and none are shown in the pictures.
In the complaint, the female officer said the incident occurred while she and Powell were in a police car and she was driving, but Powell said the car’s GPS showed that the car was parked during the time the alleged incident occurred.
A series of color photographs, including one that showed Powell’s face, was also part of the investigation, as were text messages Powell allegedly sent to the female officer.
Powell said department investigators asked for a copy of the female officer’s phone records to determine who initiated the text messages but the female officer refused to provide them.
Regarding the color photographs, Powell said he didn’t believe they were taken in the police car, that they “appeared to be cropped,” and that he thought a date and time stamp had been added later.
When he asked if he could provide evidence to show how that could be done, Taylor refused, saying that the panel could not consider outside evidence that is not a part of the investigative file.
Powell said he also volunteered to take a lie detector test to prove his innocence, but one was never offered to him.
Additionally, Powell said the female officer never told her immediate supervisor about the alleged harassment.
“I never made inappropriate sexual remarks and ask that you find me innocent,” he said.
Hubanks said after that reviewing the investigative file, he determined that Powell’s alleged action did not “rise to the level of a criminal offense” and that he felt there were good reasons to “try and salvage Powell’s career.”
Hubanks described the female officer’s refusal to provide her phone records as “curious behavior,” and said he based his decision on the action he took primarily on the photographs.
“It was the expression on her face that troubled me,” he said.
He said the decision to suspend Powell for 20 days was an arbitrary one, explaining that Sargent had recommended between 15 and 30 days, “and I picked 20.” He also said pulling Powell’s FTO certification was “an appropriate punishment that fit the situation.”
Hubanks described Powell as ” a good officer and a good FTO (Field Training Officer). He’s also a member of the SWAT team and this incident is shocking and surprising and not an indication of who I know him to be.”
In his final response, Powell said the actions attributed to him “is not the type of behavior I do, and not the behavior I’ve ever done.
“I am tough on recruits because I don’t want to go to another officer’s funeral,” he said. “I’ve gone to too many of them already. I’m not going to lie. I’ve always told the truth. Any time I’ve been punished in the past I’ve taken my licks and moved on.”
Fourth Ward Alderman George Stepps, who had asked Hubanks about the investigation into Powell during a meeting of the city council’s Public Safety Committee in March, attended the hearing along with Wanda V. Neal and Dorothy Oliver of the NAACP. Mayor Debe Hollingsworth also was present.
The panel will have 10 days to make a decision in the case.