Tuesday, June 22, 2021

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Departing police chief takes parting shot at sheriff for raiding his staff; sheriff says they volunteered

Chief suggest ‘reparations’, but city mgr. disavows demand for reimbursement

It was with a hearty embrace that Alamance County’s sheriff Terry Johnson bid farewell to Jeff Smythe last week when the city of Burlington held a retirement bash ahead of Smythe’s departure as its chief of police.

Yet, the sheriff’s outward display of affection belies the much more complicated relationship that existed between the two men during Smythe’s eight years at the helm of Burlington’s police force.

Although always publicly cordial, the two agency heads also had their share of off-stage disagreements – at least one of which seems to have persisted through to the last month of Smythe’s tenure.

On May 18, less than two weeks before his official date of retirement, Smythe sent Johnson a letter that takes him to task for allegedly recruiting officers away from his agency and other municipal police departments in Alamance County. The police chief goes on request “reparations” for his own agency’s defections – a demand that hasn’t exactly been upheld by Burlington’s city manager since Smythe gave up his post.

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The police chief’s missive to Johnson begins amicably enough with an account of the various instances when their departments had “collaborated successfully.” Smythe insists that, over the years, he has found that he and the sheriff “agree far more than we disagree,” and he hails the “mutually beneficial working relationship” that he says exists between their respective agencies.

“I am requesting, again, that you refrain from hiring officers from municipalities in Alamance County.

– Then-Burlington police chief Jeff Smythe in May 18 letter to Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

“With that in mind,” Smythe adds, “I am requesting, again, that you refrain from hiring officers from municipalities in Alamance County.

“As we [h]ead into the current budget cycle, a number of agencies are requesting additions to their staffing” the police chief continues. “In these trying times, we must work together to elevate policing and not simply lure away staff from surrounding agencies . . . Cast a wide net and recruit candidates from outside Alamance County, [and] allow each city or town to protect their citizens with their existing staff.”

Smythe’s letter might seem audacious enough if all it did was give Johnson a rap on knuckles for his alleged inter-agency headhunting. But the police chief proceeds to make a request for monetary compensation that seems calculated to test the patience of the letter’s intended recipient.

“I ask that you review your funding and seek to make reparations to the BPD. Over the last 8 years, you have hired 20 BPD officers. Given our actual expenses of $85,000 to hire and train a new officer, your actions have cost the taxpayers in Burlington $1.7 million.”

– Then-Burlington police chief Jeff Smythe in May 18 letter to Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

“I ask that you review your funding and seek to make reparations to the BPD,” the letter states point blank. “Over the last 8 years, you have hired 20 BPD officers. Given our actual expenses of $85,000 to hire and train a new officer, your actions have cost the taxpayers in Burlington $1.7 million.”

Smythe goes on to acknowledge that he doesn’t expect the sheriff “to pay us the full amount” for these losses, although he suggests that the two agencies “should discuss a reasonable fee for the talent acquisition, training, and preparation we expend on your behalf.”

It just so happens that Smythe dispatched this letter to Johnson a mere day after the sheriff presented his own report on the high cost of turnover to the county’s board of commissioners.

Johnson delivered this spiel on May 17 as a warm-up to a recommended budget which Alamance County’s manager Bryan Hagood unveiled later that same evening. Among other things, Hagood’s budget suggests a 5-percent pay raise for all of the sheriff’s sworn officers.

It was Johnson, however, who supplied the rationale for this increase as he bemoaned the high cost of recruiting and training new personnel to replace those who defect to other law enforcement agencies that offer more generous wages.

“Let me tell you something, we train these officers, and then guess what? They’ll go to Durham; they’ll go to Hillsborough [where Orange County’s sheriff is headquartered]; they’ll go to Guilford County; they’ll go to the Burlington PD.”– Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson before the county’s commissioners on May 17, 2021

During his presentation to the commissioners, Johnson compared his own agency’s salaries with those at four other departments that he construed as potential drains on his manpower. The very first agency to appear in his chart, as well as the only municipal police department it featured, happened to be Burlington’s police force.

“Let me tell you something,” Johnson said as he shared these cross-agency comparisons with the commissioners, “we train these officers, and then guess what? They’ll go to Durham; they’ll go to Hillsborough [where Orange County’s sheriff is headquartered]; they’ll go to Guilford County; they’ll go to the Burlington PD.”

 

 

In a subsequent interview with The Alamance News, Smythe insisted that the timing of his letter to Johnson had nothing to do with the sheriff’s pitch to the commissioners.

“He and I had a personal conversation about that about five months ago,” the now-retired police chief added. “My intention was to send a message to the sheriff that I thought it was inappropriate for him to take cops from municipalities…I wanted to convey the message that if you were truly concerned about the public safety of the county, you need to be a team player with the municipalities.”

“I ask every candidate if they’ve told their chief they’re leaving.”

– Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

Johnson, for his part, said he was flabbergasted by the police chief’s accusation that he has been raiding Burlington’s police force for personnel.

“I’d have to be really, really dissatisfied in order to leave for that kind of cut in pay [$20,000 or more to work at sheriff’s office rather than Burlington police department].”

– Alamance County sheriff Terry Johnson

In an interview with The Alamance News, the sheriff stressed that he hasn’t initiated contact with any of the municipal police officers who’ve joined his agency from Burlington or anywhere else. Johnson added that many of these officers accept pay cuts in order to work for the sheriff’s office, and he specifically recalled two defectors from Burlington who saw their wages plummet by $20,000 or more [See separate story in this edition for interviews with three officers who made this transition.]

“I’d have to be really, really dissatisfied,” he added, “in order to leave for that kind of cut in pay.”

Johnson went on to underscore the argument he shared with the county’s board of commissioners – that the relatively high pay in Burlington has continued to draw off his deputies despite the nonmonetary advantages that his agency offers.

As for the police chief’s demand for “reparations,” the sheriff just rolled his eyes, although he later acknowledged that he has since received an apology, of sorts, from Burlington’s city manager.

Smythe hinted that his request for compensation was intended to illustrate a broader point rather than serve as a serious suggestion to Johnson. Even so, the police chief’s call for reimbursement triggered an immediate follow-up from Burlington’s city manager Hardin Watkins.

In an interview earlier this week, Watkins acknowledged that he didn’t want the sheriff and his associates to conclude from Smythe’s letter that the city intended to bill them for the loss of police officers who now serve under Johnson.

“Upon my receipt of a copy of that letter, I sent a note to the sheriff, to chief deputy [Cliff] Parker, and to county manager [Bryan] Hagood to say that the city is not interested in collecting any funds or requesting any funds.” – Burlington city manager Hardin Watkins upon learning of police chief’s letter to sheriff Johnson

“Upon my receipt of a copy of that letter,” the city manager recalled, “I sent a note to the sheriff, to chief deputy [Cliff] Parker, and to county manager [Bryan] Hagood to say that the city is not interested in collecting any funds or requesting any funds.

“We appreciate and value the relationship we have with the county,” he added. “We step up and help each other, especially in matters of public safety and emergencies…That’s the way it should be, and that’s the way that it is.”

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