Posted for: AriesTonto
The Lexington council fired a police officer accused of leaking information about other officers to Black Lives Matter protesters, and the Kentucky ACLU sharply criticized the dismissal.
The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council announced its decision shortly after 1 a.m. Friday after a nine-hour police hearing and more than two hours of closed-door deliberations.
Under the state’s open meetings law, the council can deliberate on personnel matters in closed session.
Lexington Police Chief Lawrence Weathers and an internal police disciplinary board recommended officer Jervis Middleton be fired for violating several department policies for providing information — including details about officers working during the protest — to Black Lives Matter protest leader Sarah Williams, a friend of Middleton’s.
Middleton was accused of overall misconduct, sharing internal police information and for being dishonest about his communication with Williams. The council found him guilty of the first two administrative charges but not guilty of the third charge. The council’s vote was unanimous.
Middleton challenged his termination, saying the information he provided Williams did not jeopardize officers’ safety and was free speech. During Thursday’s hearing, lawyers for Middleton, who is Black, said Middleton has faced repeated racial taunts and discrimination from fellow officers and was frustrated because nothing had been done to address his longstanding concerns about racism in the department. Middleton was also frustrated about the repeated killings of Black Americans by police officers.
“The ACLU of Kentucky is concerned (the) Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council fired Officer Jervis Middleton amidst longstanding calls for a radical transformation of policing and transparent relationships with the public,” said Executive Director Michael Aldridge. “While Officer Middleton’s actions may warrant some level of disciplinary action, it is particularly concerning he was more swiftly investigated and harshly punished for sharing non-critical information than officers who use excessive force against protesters or create the culture of racism and hostility Middleton reported to no avail.”
DETAILS ABOUT WHAT WAS TOLD TO LEXINGTON BLM PROTESTERS
Keith Horn, a lawyer for the city, said during opening arguments that Middleton told Williams what to say to some officers during protests in May and June and sent her some staffing information, including that police were looking for officers to work overtime to work the protests.
At first, Middleton denied he had given the information to Williams and only admitted it after being shown text and other messages from Williams’ phone, which police obtained through a search warrant, Horn said.
“Officer Middleton’s “conduct during a highly stressful and potentially vulnerable time during the history of our community — the most significant policing event in our community in 20 years — demonstrates that he should no longer be a police officer,” Horn said.
Chief Weathers testified Middleton should be fired because he put his fellow officers in jeopardy during the protests, which went on for 59 nights during the summer.
“The allegations against Officer Middleton is that he provided information that could be used to insult, intimidate and harass our officers while they were working the protests,” Weathers said. Officers who were called out by name by those protesters were removed from their duty posts, Weathers said.
RACE NOT A FACTOR IN OFFICER’S DISMISSAL, CHIEF SAYS
Weathers also said he agreed with the internal disciplinary board’s dismissal recommendation because Middleton had recently been demoted and had a prior formal complaint against him.
“I felt like the discipline he received last time should have been a message to him and allow him to come back and become the officer that I know he can be. After this, I just can’t see him coming back. To me, it was a violation of trust and a violation of the position of a police officer. He was supposed to protect the public, but he should also protect his fellow officers.”
Weathers, who is Black, said race was not a factor in the recommendation to dismiss Middleton.
Lt. David Biroschick of the public integrity unit, which investigates complaints against officers, testified Thursday that Middleton at first lied to investigators about providing the information to Williams. When confronted with evidence of the communication, he finally admitted it.
Police testified Thursday that Middleton shared a screenshot of a notice that the department’s emergency response unit, or its tactical or SWAT team, would be called out to help with the protest. The other information shared with Williams was an email asking if officers wanted to work the protests.
Lawyers for Middleton argued that information did not give protesters any insight into the police department tactics. It’s obvious when SWAT shows up, they are dressed in tactical gear, they argued.
SHARED INFORMATION WASN’T ‘HARMFUL,’ OFFICER’S ATTORNEY, ACLU SAY
Keith Sparks, one of Middleton’s lawyers, said Middleton did not incite violence, nor did he give Williams information that would have compromised police operations.
The ACLU said dialogue between police and protesters was a good idea.
“Simply put, protest organizers should know whether and under what circumstances SWAT units (or other militarized police) will be deployed,” Aldridge said. “Clear channels of communication and shared expectations make tense situations safer for police, protesters, and bystanders. Why does LFUCG feel that this information is so dangerous if shared?”
Protesters demanding accountability from the police said a lot to police officers during the protests. Not all of the information used was provided by Middleton, Sparks said.
“The only harm is imagined harm,” Sparks said.
Williams, who testified during Thursday’s hearing, said firing a Black officer for speaking with Black Lives Matter protesters will set back police accountability years. White officers who have physically harmed people have been allowed to remain on the police force.
Firing Middleton will also make it difficult for the police force to retain and recruit Black officers, she argued. Williams said Middleton’s experience with the police department is not unique.
“I have had conversations with other black officers who are on the force or retired off the force, who have shared some of the same experiences,” Williams said.
POLICE LEADERS DENY THEY WERE TOLD OF OFFICERS’ RACIAL TAUNTS
Much of the defense’s argument centered on Middleton’s frustration with what he saw as racial discrimination within the department.
A fellow officer once told Middleton to “turn your black a– face around.” Sparks said Middleton told Biroschick in the public integrity unit, but nothing happened, he said.
“The officer who hurled that insult is now a lieutenant,” Sparks said.
Biroschick testified Thursday that Middleton didn’t tell him about the incident, but he heard about it from another officer. Biroschick said because no one filed a formal complaint, it was not investigated.
Middleton testified later that Biroschick was mistaken. He told Biroschick and another senior officer about the incident.
Fellow officers also created at least five memes featuring Middleton, which made it appear that Middleton was a threat to white women. “They were racially inappropriate,” Sparks said.
During Thursday’s testimony, officers said Middleton had also shared an inappropriate meme of another officer to Facebook prior to the memes of Middleton being circulated.
Middleton was also referred to as a “token boy” by a fellow officer at a Fraternal Order of Police event, Sparks said. No one was ever punished.
Weathers said during Thursday’s hearing he was not aware until recently of some of the incidents Middleton had experienced as detailed at the hearing.
Weathers said he will make it clear what an officer should do when witnessing racism. Weathers said he would prefer that human resources look into those allegations first. A complaint could then be sent to public integrity if human resources does not take action.
When asked if he understood Middleton’s frustration, Weathers said yes, but “that did not justify what he did.”
WIFE TESTIFIES SHE ALSO TOLD CHIEF ABOUT DISCRIMINATION
Kristi Middleton, Jervis Middleton’s wife, testified that she spoke to Weathers and told him that Middleton had experienced ongoing harassment and discrimination. Weathers said that he referred her to the public integrity unit.
Kristi Middleton said the disciplinary process is flawed and unjust.
“This process is predetermined,” Kristi Middleton said. She said previous councils have allowed white cops who have made racist comments to remain on the force.
Jervis Middleton testified that he later went out to lunch with Weathers and tried to bring up some of the issues he had experienced, but those concerns were brushed off.
“I didn’t think anything would happen,” Middleton said of his multiple attempts to prod the department into action. “It’s kind of taboo to call out racial issues.”
Jervis Middleton said many of the officers who he gave Williams information about had previously made racist comments.
Policing must change, the ACLU pointed out, by examining ways existing policies and practices perpetuate systematic racism.
“Community policing cannot progress without meaningful transformation, and creating and ignoring hostile work environments for Black police officers and closing dialogue with the public is the opposite of progress,” Aldridge said.
The city’s lawyer Horn pointed out that much of Middleton’s complaints about racial discrimination were only brought to light recently. The allegations of racial discrimination and harassment were turned over to human resources during the investigation into Middleton’s disciplinary case. That human resource investigation is now on hold because Middleton’s lawyer has not recommended he participate in the internal human resources investigation until the disciplinary case against him was concluded, according to emails presented during the hearing.
Sparks, Middleton’s attorney, also questioned why police sought a search warrant for Williams’ phone and for her Facebook pages. Williams and others were arrested in mid-June on a variety of charges, including inciting a riot. Williams said she was walking to her car after the protest when she was arrested. Those criminal charges are still pending.
GETTING WARRANT TO ACCESS PHONE MESSAGES WAS ‘UNFOUNDED’
Using a warrant to get Williams’ cell phone and Facebook information “was completely unfounded,” Sparks said.
Police disciplinary hearings, where the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council acts as the jury, are conducted if the officer does not accept the punishment recommended by the police chief or the internal police disciplinary board, which consists of the upper command staff of the police department.
Police disciplinary hearings are rare. In most cases, officers accept the chief’s recommendation.
No information about Middleton’s disciplinary case could be released prior to Thursday’s hearing. Under state law, public officials are barred from releasing information on such cases until the discipline is finalized or the case goes to a police disciplinary hearing.
This is not the first disciplinary action Middleton has faced.
Middleton was acquitted of official misconduct in February 2019 by a Fayette District Court jury after he was accused of using police computers to get information about a woman who had accused him of stalking and spying on her after their sexual relationship ended.
Middleton also faced internal disciplinary action over the incident. Middleton and the city eventually reached an agreement in October 2019 that demoted Middleton from sergeant to officer. That agreement was reached hours before a public disciplinary hearing was set to begin.
Documents from that disciplinary case showed that Middleton was accused of asking officers to drive by and run license plate numbers of cars at the home of the woman with whom he once had a relationship.
Middleton has been an officer since 2007 and once served as a police spokesperson.