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Conway officer says in suit she faced retaliation after reporting superior

by Dale Ellis | December 9, 2022 at 3:40 a.m.
A Conway Police Department vehicle is shown in this file photo.

A Conway police officer who says she was the first female K-9 handler in the department's history claims in a federal lawsuit she faced retaliation for reporting what she describes as a superior's conflict of interest, misuse of funds and inappropriate conduct.

Brittany Byrd, an eight-year veteran of the Conway Police Department, said in the suit filed last week that she reported in 2019 that Maj. Clayton Smith had misused public funds and had a conflict of interest involving his personal business.

According to the suit, Smith owns and operates Clay's Top Dog, a private dog training facility. Byrd said in the suit that funds she had requested for budgeted items related to the department's purchase of a new dog were unavailable because the money was in use for another purpose that "provided a financial benefit for Smith and his 'personal business associates.'"

Also in 2019, Byrd said she reported Smith for "inappropriate conduct" that she said was directed at her.

Byrd contends that because Smith was, at the time, Patrol Division and K-9 Unit commander, his position in the chain of command over her constituted an abuse of his authority.

Byrd said her allegations were investigated in November 2019. Although the findings were not disclosed to her, she said she was told by former Police Chief Jody Spradlin that Smith was being transferred to another unit and "would never be in her chain of command again."

But, Byrd said, Smith was placed back over the patrol division and K-9 unit in May of this year, which she said placed him back into a position "of great influence and authority" over her.

Byrd said she has been required to be subject to bites by apprehension dogs during training far more frequently than other officers, despite the department's lack of a properly sized "bite suit" to protect her from injuries.

She also said she has been subjected to abuse and discrimination because she is in a relationship with an officer in the department who is Black.

Byrd, who is white, said she has been provoked and isolated by members of her unit during past training sessions and that images of herself and her boyfriend have been taken and shared without reason.

In addition, she said she was targeted for harassment by Assistant Chief Chris Harris, who she alleged has used the term "mudshark" in reference to white women who date Black men, as well as a patrol lieutenant who, although not a direct supervisor, allegedly harassed her and interfered with her work duties.

She said the retaliation against her increased after an Aug. 16 meeting with Chief William Tapley in which she discussed the harassment and her fears of retaliation and harassment with Smith placed back in a supervisory capacity over her.

According to the lawsuit:

• On Aug. 26, a headrest that had been removed from her patrol car several years earlier as a medical accommodation due to migraines Byrd suffered was re-installed without warning at Harris' direction.

• On Sept. 2, a grievance was filed against her by another officer that was determined to be unfounded, but her request that it be removed from her personnel file was denied by Tapley and Harris.

• Around the same day, she received an email from Lt. Andrew Burningham chastising her for "not conforming to policy" after she was called to a traffic stop while off duty and responded wearing department-issued uniform pants and a uniform shirt, leaving her outer vest carrier and duty belt inside her patrol unit, which she said was standard operating procedure among handlers trying to respond as quickly as possible.

• On Sept. 7, she was reprimanded by Burningham for not notifying him of a doctor's appointment and recommended absence from training, despite having notified her immediate supervisor and providing documentation from her doctor.

• On Sept. 21, her work schedule was changed without notice in such a way that it resulted in the loss of built-in overtime that all officers receive and caused her and a fellow K-9 officer to be placed on permanent, year-round night shift duty with irregular days off, which Byrd said requires her to attend training sessions at times she would normally be asleep.

Byrd, 33, who has also been named a department Rookie of the Year and Officer of the Year in the past, said the treatment she has received at the hands of her superiors has caused her to experience depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, lost wages and has resulted in a hostile work environment.

The suit, which asks for lost wages and benefits as well as unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, names the city, Tapley, Harris, Smith and Burningham as defendants.

A Conway police spokeswoman didn't return a phone message left Thursday evening.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock on Dec. 2 and has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Brian Miller. Byrd is represented by the law firm of Sutter and Gillham PLLC in Little Rock. It did not return a message seeking comment Thursday.

Print Headline: Faced retaliation after reporting superior, Conway officer says in suit


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