Witnesses testifying on her behalf said the city fired a female Decatur police officer for conduct less egregious than misconduct for which male officers have gone unpunished, such as domestic violence, driving under the influence and theft.
The Personnel Board won’t return a decision on Brandi Leigh Reed's appeal of her termination until its July 25 meeting. Reed, who had been on administrative duty since May 2018, was fired Jan. 28.
Reed, 28, was in her seventh year with the department. She was terminated for conduct unbecoming of an officer and failure to follow policy in a May 22, 2018, incident at the Hartselle home of fellow officer Zachary Charles Blanton. She and Blanton were charged with misdemeanor harassment after an altercation in which Blanton's sister-in-law accused them of having an affair while Blanton's wife was out of town. Both officers were found not guilty of the assault charge.
Blanton was allowed to resign Wednesday morning before his scheduled termination hearing with the Personnel Board, said Assistant City Attorney Chip Alexander.
Reed's commanding officers testified Wednesday that she should have notified her supervisor in writing of the Hartselle incident. Reed, who is now working as a Lawrence County sheriff's deputy, said she thought a call from the responding Hartselle police officer to her supervisor was sufficient.
Joseph Walker, a longtime officer in the Traffic Division, testified for Reed and said he’s often the person the young officers go to for counseling. He said Reed is “almost like a daughter to me.”
Walker said he believes “women shouldn’t do some jobs like police officer, firefighter and combat military.” He said he told Reed as a rookie officer that, as a woman, she “would have to work 10 times harder than her fellow male officers to be successful. I’m very upfront about my views.”
Walker testified he thinks the department has been particularly hard on Reed because she’s a woman, while letting other officers off for their transgressions.
Alexander said Walker’s views are influencing Reed’s opinion that she is being treated unfairly because she’s a woman.
Officer Josh Heflin said there have been other officers “who received lesser punishments in bigger situations” than anything Reed did.
Police Chief Nate Allen said Thursday the department "has treated everyone fairly in the three years I've been here. It doesn't matter what their gender or race is." He said the department has a personnel policy that specifies violations and the punishments for those violations, and that it is applied equally to all officers.
As an example of the department's inconsistent disciplinary actions, Walker and Heflin focused on the case of former Decatur police evidence technician Jonathan Lowery.
The city was accused during hearings related to a pending murder trial of taking extraordinary efforts to retain Lowery as an employee, despite Lowery’s admission that he took a gold ring from the police evidence room.
The city wanted to protect Lowery's employment so he would be a cooperative witness in pending felony cases in which his testimony is crucial to the prosecution, defense attorneys claimed in the murder case. Lowery was transferred from the Police Department to a code enforcement position in the Community Development Department in January.
Heflin said it wasn’t fair that Lowery initially remained with the department despite his admitted misconduct, and was even given Reed’s patrol car when she was placed on administrative duty.
Lowery was moved from the Police Department to another position in the city even though most of his co-workers thought he should have been fired, Walker said.
“It was a cover-up,” Walker said. “They needed his testimony for capital cases.”
Heflin said most of his fellow officers felt the city "tried to sweep (Lowery’s) alleged offenses under the carpet when he should have been fired.”
Allen on Thursday said the city, not the Police Department, made the decision to transfer Lowery to Community Development. He also said he and the command staff aren't aware of morale issues in his department related to the Lowery issue.
Accusations of double standard
Heflin testified he knows of a case in which an officer was married and dating a fellow officer but the department never did anything about it.
Under cross-examination, Heflin said he could not give details on any more cases in which he believes the city gave favorable treatment to other officers.
Walker accused the department of giving Officer Kurt Hamilton preferential treatment after he was accused of running a traffic signal and being involved in a wreck that injured the other driver in 2013.
“He made a stupid decision, but he was only reassigned as punishment because his father works for the department,” Walker said.
Walker said he also knows of an officer who had an issue with domestic violence, “but they got his wife to drop the charges and later he got promoted.”
Under cross-examination by Alexander, Walker and Heflin admitted they were not involved in any of the investigations in these incidents so they did not know the details of the cases against the officers.
Alexander told the Personnel Board he wouldn’t trust anyone like Walker “who seems to know all of the sexual activities of his fellow officers and the department gossip. I don’t know how he has time to get his work done.”
Reed testified she feels she is being punished more harshly than other officers because she is a woman. This overly harsh punishment, she said, included permanent assignment to the front desk.
Heflin and Walker admitted under cross-examination that Reed made a bad decision when she went to Blanton’s home because the two had been in a previous relationship and he is married.
Blanton’s sister-in-law, Hailey LaMar, 22, testified in an Aug. 30 trial in Hartselle Municipal Court that she went into Blanton’s home at 6:30 a.m. May 22. She removed the children from the home. She said she heard someone having sex and kicked in the door to the master bedroom to find out who it was.
Reed testified Wednesday that she had previously had an intimate relationship with Blanton, but denied she was having sex with Blanton on the morning of the incident. After the hearing, she said she had an intimate relationship with Blanton when she was a first-year officer.
She testified she was asleep in the master bedroom May 22, 2018, while Blanton, whose wife was not at home, was sleeping on the couch. LaMar and Reed then got into a fight.
Reed said Wednesday she showed restraint when LaMar grabbed her hair but then she had to defend herself. She said she didn’t file charges against LaMar because she wanted the case to go away so it wouldn’t harm her career or the department.
Reed was found not guilty of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, in the Hartselle trial.
Officer's judgment questioned
Alexander argued in the hearing that the termination case is not about the assault charge. Instead, he said, it’s about her bad judgment in being in the home of a former lover who is married. Reed admitted in the hearing that it was bad decision to go to Blanton’s home.
Lt. Todd Pinion, who investigated the case for Internal Affairs, said the decision to go to Blanton’s home was the latest in a number of bad decisions during her career that culminated in her being cited for conduct unbecoming of an officer.
Her superiors, including Allen and Capt. Rick Archer, agreed she had bad judgment. They also agreed that the publicity of the incident reflected poorly on the Police Department.
“We can’t afford to have police officers with bad judgment,” Allen told the Personnel Board.
Pinion said Reed had been punished at least seven times for “sustained complaints.” These offenses are considered viable and serious, leading to officer punishment.
Some of the more serious offenses during her tenure with the Police Department, according to testimony Wednesday, included driving 100 mph in her police vehicle without her warning lights; an unnecessary conflict with a Morgan County Jail inmate; failing to arrest a suspect on a felony robbery charge; and smoking a cigarette on the street in front of a suspect’s home while waiting for other officers to conduct a raid.
Archer said the Police Department usually has about eight to 10 sustained complaints a year so he thinks Reed’s individual penalty record is “uncommonly high.”
Allen and Mayor Tab Bowling testified her number of sustained complaints combined with her unwillingness to accept that she had done anything wrong were why they felt she should be terminated.
Walker said Reed is a good officer who he believes will learn from her mistakes.
Reed’s attorney, Ashley Feltman, of Florence, said the city had a conflicting policy on notification that created confusion, justifying her failure to notify her superior after the Hartselle incident.
On the unbecoming behavior, Feltman said the department brass are just unhappy about the bad publicity the Hartselle incident created, even though it was a situation that Reed didn’t start and even though she was found not guilty of assault. She said Reed didn’t get any credit for the positive publicity she created with several big drug busts.
Alexander said in his closing argument that city residents don’t want Reed serving on the Police Department because of her bad decision-making.
“The one thing I hear that is required for any police officer is good judgment,” Alexander said. “But how many times should one be allowed to make incredibly boneheaded decisions before we say, ‘No, we don’t need you anymore.’ ”