May 12, 2018 9:59:18 PM
Zack Plair - [email protected]
The officer now leading Columbus Police Department's criminal investigation division has a documented history of mishandling evidence.
Records The Dispatch obtained from a Freedom of Information Act request show Corporal Eric D. Lewis was transferred from patrol to serve as CID supervisor on May 7. On the same day, Corporal Tabertha Hardin -- a nine-year veteran of CPD who had worked with the investigation division since 2014 -- was transferred to patrol as a shift leader.
Also in response to the records request, the city's human resources office confirmed Lewis has yet to serve a 20-day unpaid suspension he received in 2015 for allegedly ordering evidence destroyed in a drug case, despite losing both of his appeals.
Lewis has worked six years for CPD, including stints as patrolman and narcotics agent. The city council suspended him, without pay, for 20 working days in January 2015. He appealed his suspension to the Civil Service Commission and later Lowndes County Circuit Court, both of which upheld the council's decision.
Police Chief Fred Shelton, in a text message to The Dispatch, declined to comment on either Lewis' or Hardin's transfers, because "(it) involves the performance of (an) employee." He also declined comment on why Lewis has yet to serve his 3-year-old suspension, citing it as a personnel matter.
Shelton did say in the text Lewis did not apply for the CID captain vacancy and that the application process for that position is closed, essentially meaning Lewis will only lead CID in the interim and work under the new captain when one is hired. The city fielded eight applicants for the captain's position and could hire someone in the coming weeks.
The former captain, Brent Swan, resigned in March to take an investigator's position with Lowndes County Sheriff's Department -- a move that came with a more than $25,000 per-year pay cut, though he never publicly gave a reason for leaving CPD.
The council approves all new police officer hires, but Shelton has the authority to organize and assign his existing staff without council input.
Still, Ward 2 Councilman Joseph Mickens, upon learning about Lewis' appointment and suspension status, said he is concerned about inconsistent discipline enforcement with CPD. He pointed specifically to an example of a patrol officer Chief Fred Shelton recommended for a 10-day suspension in April after she allegedly lied about how her patrol unit was dented. The council, however, opted not to suspend her.
"It's a little ironic that we're trying to suspend officers for some things, but we're putting other officers in supervisor positions who haven't even served their suspensions for things that are, in my opinion, worse," Mickens said. "I don't want to micromanage the police department because I'm not that guy. But we, as councilmen, still have to speak up when we have concerns."
Stephen Jones, councilman for Ward 5, did not specifically question Lewis' appointment, but he told The Dispatch he would like to see an experienced, well-trained CID.
"I would hope we are putting the right people in place for the right reasons and training them to make the right decisions for the city," Jones said.
As far as Lewis' suspension, Jones -- who was not on the council in January 2015 -- said the officer should have to serve it.
"If it went through proper channels, it should be followed through, whether it's him or anybody else," he said.
Councilmen Charlie Box of Ward 3 and Fred Jackson of Ward 4 both expressed they are concerned over Lewis' appointment to CID and the fact he hasn't served his suspension, though they didn't comment further on the record.
Ward 6 Councilmen Bill Gavin told The Dispatch he wasn't aware of either issue and didn't offer an opinion.
The Dispatch could not reach Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor by press time.
Suspension fell through the cracks?
City Attorney Jeff Turnage, who represented the council during both of Lewis' suspension appeals, also discovered last week the officer hasn't served it.
Typically, Turnage said, a suspended officer will begin serving the time immediately after the council's ruling. The city would then reimburse the officer for the unpaid time if the suspension is overturned on appeal, something Turnage said hasn't happened in the years he's been city attorney.
"It's difficult to overcome a suspension," he said. "The only reasons to overturn would be if there is no cause for the suspension or it was given for political or religious reasons."
Turnage doesn't know why Lewis didn't serve his time immediately or how it has since slipped through the cracks, but he said the turmoil in the aftermath of the October 15, 2015, officer-involved shooting of Ricky Ball could have played a part.
The circuit court ruling upholding the suspension came down on Nov. 6, 2015, a few weeks after former CPD officer Canyon Boykin fatally shot Ball following a traffic stop. Then-Police Chief Tony Carleton resigned during the early stages of the investigation into the incident and a severe officer shortage harried the police department for the next two years.
"It's possible it got lost in the shuffle during the chief transition," Turnage said. "But that's just speculation on my part."
Lewis' past issues
Even before Lewis' 2015 suspension, his tenure with CPD has sometimes caused controversy.
The Columbus-Lowndes Metro Narcotics Unit disbanded in 2012, after then-CPD Chief Selvain McQueen tried to place Lewis on the unit and Sheriff Mike Arledge blocked his appointment because the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics refused to deputize Lewis -- something the inter-local agreement required for all the unit's members.
The city and county reestablished the joint Drug Task Force in February 2017, with Arledge overseeing the unit.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.