Missouri law adds job security for police chiefs

If a new requirement for Missouri municipalities to establish procedures to remove police chiefs had been in place three years ago, it might have saved Troy Sims’ job in Orrick.

During spring 2009, he was embroiled in a political and legal wrestling match with Marilyn Butler, then the newly elected mayor of Orrick, a rural community of less than 900 residents east of Kansas City in Ray County.

Sims alleged that Butler retaliated against him for issuing a nuisance ticket to her husband in 2007 and later ticketing her son-in-law for DUI. Butler accused Sims of wrongdoings that included improperly getting rid of police evidence, according to various petitions filed in the case.

Though Butler and Sims denied the separate allegations, the squabble eventually led to Sims resigning as police chief after reaching an out-of-court settlement with city leaders.

A new state law, which takes effect Aug. 28, makes it harder for municipalities to fire police chiefs unless there is misconduct, insubordination, violation of a written policy or a felony committed.

It also reduces the likelihood that chiefs will face the same challenges that Sims did to keep their jobs, said Kevin Baldwin, the city attorney for Orrick.

“It will definitely allow chiefs across the state, including our own, if he feels he is being singled out or mistreated in any way, that it will allow him to have a fair hearing,” Baldwin said. “The situation with Mr. Sims was deeply unfortunate and regretful, and we believe that he was a good officer, a good chief, and we wish him well in the future.”

The new law says police chiefs must be given written notice at least 10 business days before a governing board’s meeting seeking a termination. And it requires two-thirds approval by that board to dismiss a chief.

Supporters say the law is simply good government and relieves police chiefs of feeling that their job security rests on the political whims of a mayor and a council.

“Ensuring a level of independence for police chiefs was important,” said state Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican who co-sponsored the bill. “You do not want to see the chief law enforcement official — probably the head of the largest department for some municipalities — caught up in the middle of some of these political spats that sometimes rear their ugly heads.”

Opponents argued that police chiefs should be treated like any municipal department head.

“At the very core, we were concerned that it removed control by local authorities to make decisions,” said Dan Ross, executive director of the Missouri Municipal League, who urged Gov. Jay Nixon to veto the measure to no avail.

Elected municipal leaders ought to have the ability to fire a police chief for poor conduct or managerial and philosophical differences, Ross said.

“This removes local control and it takes one member of the municipality’s management team and gives them a special deal, if you will,” he said.

But unlike a parks or public works director, police chiefs must be licensed and take an oath to uphold the law, said Sheldon Lineback, executive director of the Missouri Police Chiefs Association.

As such, police chiefs are held to a higher standard and should be afforded a form of due process if their job is at risk, Lineback said.

“We are not seeking to keep bad police chiefs,” he said. “We are just saying: Follow the process for removal.

“We give due process to criminals. Why wouldn’t we give the same due process for police chiefs?”

In Orrick, investigators with the Missouri State Highway Patrol cleared Sims of any wrongdoing after Butler accused him of giving a .22-caliber rifle to a city employee. Butler also claimed that Sims threw evidence into a trash container outside the police department.

Eventually, the city gave Sims a cash settlement and a letter of recommendation in exchange for his voluntary resignation. Because of the settlement, Sims could not comment for this article.

The new law could face legal challenges, said Dan Wichmer, city attorney for Springfield and a past president of the Missouri Municipal Attorneys Association.

“For a charter city, how do you reconcile the legislation in saying this is how you handle one employee when there is a provision in every charter that this is how you deal with all employees?” Wichmer asked.

About six years ago, Bob Boydston, who was police chief of Pleasant Valley, found himself in a political squabble with then-Mayor Renee Flippin over a personnel issue.

Boydston said Flippin improperly engaged in discriminatory and retaliatory conduct that led to Boydston’s eventual termination.

Boydston, who was elected Clay County sheriff in 1992, 1996 and 2008, later sued the city and filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. In 2009, the city’s insurance provider agreed to pay Boydston $35,000 to settle the matter.

The new law would guard against “capricious and political terminations,” he said. “It just seems counterintuitive to me that there is such a procedure to hire police chiefs and not one to terminate their services.”