08/09/2007

Ga. police chief reinstated after firing

"This is small-town nasty politics at its worst,"

By Elena Oliviero
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution

DORAVILLE, Ga. Doraville mayor Ray Jenkins reinstated fired police chief and Iraq war veteran John King on Wednesday as controversy brewed about the reasons for the chief's ousting.

Doraville City Councilman Tom Hart called King a "part-time chief" and criticized him for being out of the loop while serving in Iraq, according to a videotape of a marathon council meeting reviewed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

In an exchange with the police chief, Hart said King was not available to weigh in on a situation involving the firing of a city employee.

When King pressed Hart on the issue of whether his service in Iraq as a member of the Georgia National Guard made him a "part-time chief," Hart was silent.

Later, Councilman Bob Spangler said it wasn't the Iraq service but King's "leave, vacation, whatever" since his return that made his commitment to his job questionable, according to the videotape.

Mayor says act illegal

Other complaints made by Hart included police officers' not allowing kids to light fireworks and not enough patrolling.

Council members later went into an executive session to further discuss King's job performance.

Afterward, in a 3-2 vote, Hart, Spangler and Ed Lowe voted to fire the chief. Marlene Hadden and Donna Pittman voted against the firing.

Jenkins said he wasn't sure he had the power to keep King as police chief, but said it was "wrong" and "illegal" for the city council to fire King at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday after a closed-door meeting. Jenkins said the council acted improperly by suggesting King was a "part-time" chief because he missed work for 18 months to fight in Iraq.

"I'm not sure if I have the power to do this," Jenkins said. "I guess we'll wait a few days and see what happens. But I'm willing to put myself on the line for him. He went to Iraq and fought for me and now I'm going to fight for him."

'Small-town politics'

In an interview with the Journal-Constitution Wednesday, King said he was fired for "petty" and "personal reasons."

"This is small-town nasty politics at its worst," said King.

He said some council members appeared upset because they didn't get invited to his wedding and held his service in Iraq against him.

"I absolutely resent that my service to my country is being used as a measure of whether I'm an effective police chief," said King, who received a Bronze Star. "My service in Iraq made me a better police chief."

King's attorney, J. Tom Morgan, said he and his client are monitoring the situation.

"Bottom line is the firing was illegal and I think the council members are backing off," said Morgan.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA), enacted in 1994, provides job protection for servicemen, he said.

Lowe denied King's service was a reason for his firing. He cited unrelated "serious" issues but declined to be specific. Lowe said the council members respected King's military service.

King, metro Atlanta's first Hispanic police chief, was promoted to the top job in 2002. In December 2004, King was dispatched to train for Iraq. Six months later, he was promoted to commander of Georgia's 1st Battalion, 108th Armor Regiment in Baghdad.

King's firing sparked outrage from many residents. E-mails and phone calls criticizing the council's action began circulating at 3 a.m. Tuesday. On Wednesday, homemade signs in support of King began dotting yards around Doraville. Dozens of e-mails circulated entitled "Save the Chief."

Staff researcher Richard Hallman contributed to this article. 

Copyright 2007 The Atlanta-Journal Constitution

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