LITTLE ROCK A Little Rock police officer who said he was too sick to respond to a January bar fight across the street from his River Market kiosk lost an appeal Thursday when the city’s Civil Service Commission voted unanimously to uphold Chief Stuart Thomas’ decision to fire him.
Joel Todd Payne, 47, had been suspended several times and fired once before - the commission later reinstated him - since the department first hired him in May 1990.
In his Aug. 5 letter firing Payne, the chief found, in regard to the officer’s actions Jan. 24, that Payne was guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer, untruthfulness and failure to respond to a call. Thomas rejected departmental accusations of dereliction of duty and failure to respond because of cowardice or danger.
“The behavior, frankly, was egregious,” Thomas said in testimony during Thursday’s hearing. “It was a failure of the essential function of a police officer, which was helping people in need.”
He called Payne an embarrassment to the department and to police officers in general.
“I’m almost speechless when I reflect on the significance of the event,” Thomas said.
Combined with Payne’s earlier discipline, Thomas said, the decision to fire Payne was not difficult.
Earlier disciplines included a suspension in 2004 for showing up to work intoxicated, his firing in 2005 after a drunken-driving arrest in North Little Rock, and a suspension in 2007 after he reportedly left profane and threatening voice mails for an insurance company.
“I didn’t see anything in the file that indicated to me that officer Payne was prepared to accept any responsibility for his actions,” Thomas said.
Since becoming chief in April 2005, Thomas has fired a handful of officers each year, usually reserving that punishment as a last resort or to set an example, he said.
Thomas fired Payne in agreement with a recommendation from Assistant Chief David Rowan. The sergeant, lieutenant and captain in Payne’s chain of command, however, recommended a 30-day suspension.
Payne testified that he felt sick before going to work that Sunday evening and felt worse the longer he stayed. When the duty manager called from Bosco’s restaurant across President Clinton Avenue and said she needed help, Payne admitted, he told her to call 911 instead.
He didn’t look outside. He didn’t ask her the severity of her emergency.
“You didn’t even get out of your seat,” Commissioner Ron Routh said to Payne.
“No,” Payne answered.
A manager at Sticky Fingerz, Bevin Ashen, said Payne waved her off when she banged repeatedly on the kiosk window trying to get him to go outside after the Bosco’s fight began anew on Commerce Street, punctuated by a woman’s “horrormovie scream.”
“I tried to get the police’s attention, and I was blown off,” she said. “There was a hand gesture kind of like ‘Go away, I’m busy.’”
There was nothing more she could have done, she said, to show Payne there was an emergency.
“I don’t think I could have looked any more frightened,” Ashen said.
When a patrol officer arrived in a police car, he drove after a suspect, and Payne followed behind to ask whether that officer and another who arrived could handle the call. Both officers - Bryant King and Cedric Nelson - testified that Payne told them he was busy with paperwork and never mentioned being sick.
The first time Payne mentioned that he felt sick was in a call to his sergeant after Bosco’s general manager, Charles Corzine, called the kiosk irate, demanding answers and promising to complain to a supervisor.
“I wanted to know why a police officer 100, 150 feet from the place was refusing to help,” Corzine said.
He said Payne mumbled something about working a drunken-driving crash and never mentioned being sick.
Payne called in sick the next day.
Payne described his illness as stomach cramps, nausea and diarrhea. He said he feared for his safety and that of Bosco’s staff and customers if he had gone across the street to help.
Payne’s attorney, Ed Adcock, asked if he hadn’t been ill, would he have taken the call as he had with hundreds of similar calls in his career.
“Yes,” Payne said.
Responding later to a question from attorney Jess Sweere, representing the department, Payne said he was aware that he made mistakes but that his thinking was sound.
“I used good judgment,” Payne said.
After voting with the four other commissioners, all appointed by the city’s Board of Directors, Commissioner Debby Linton said there was a reason deliberations after the hearing took 26 minutes over lunch.
“There was no sense that he was telling us the truth,” she said.
Payne said that he was sick only after Corzine called and complained, she said. And seven witnesses - inside and outside the Police Department - contradicting portions of Payne’s testimony was too large a thing to ignore, Linton said.
“That was a huge factor,” she said.
After the vote, Thomas stayed and mingled with commissioners.
Payne said nothing to anyone, stood up and walked out.