By Josh Akeman
The City of Fayetteville announced yesterday that Police Chief Steve Heaton will be taking early retirement, while his second in command Major Kevin Gooding will be resigning his position at the end of the month. Both men had previously considered leaving the department for other opportunities, but the departures also come in the midst of a city investigation into the department which was prompted by a series of letters, some signed and some not, pointing fingers at Heaton and to a lesser extent Gooding and other city officials. The letters offered a wide ranging list of accusations suggesting Heaton had cultivated a hostile work environment in his seven years as chief, causing low morale as well as the departure of many officers.
Fayetteville's City Manager Joe Morton also drew some criticism in a couple of the letters ostensibly written by concerned citizens, in which city leadership was accused of turning a blind eye to the chief's abuses while also allowing the department's numbers to dwindle and morale to sag.
In regards to the complaints against Heaton, Morton has said the letters were the first he had ever heard of such allegations, even though he felt all police officers and city employees in general would know that it would be appropriate to bring such grievances to him.
The first of the letters sent was unsigned, but seems to have been written by a Fayetteville police officer. The letter references in particular the March 21 firing of a 17-year department veteran "because of a personal bias that Chief Heaton and Major Gooding has against him."
In particular, the letter references in a general manner a recent incident in which an officer on duty was involved in car accident with a civilian. The letter charges that two of the officers harshly punished for this incident were minorities, including the 17-year officer whose termination is currently in the appeals process. The letter charges that a similar incident had occurred with white officers yet "nothing happened to anyone involved in that case."
Morton has not offered a comment on that particular firing since the officer is still in the appeals process but said the incident, along with many of the others alleged in the various letters, would be part of the investigation conducted by an outside entity.
Heaton had intended to take part in the city's early retirement incentive program, but could have returned on a part-time basis as many other city employees have done. Offering early retirement with the option to return to work on a part time basis is a strategy the city has used more than once since the national recession hit, and Morton says it has been effective as advertised in saving the city dollars and trimming staff without losing too much experience.
Heaton says he regrets the timing of this situation, saying nobody wants to go out on a bad note, but maintains that he will cooperate fully with the investigation.
"My big focus in reference to the retirement is I want to kind of reflect and relax and see which direction I want to go. The other thing I think is really important is we've still got some stuff left undone, which is the investigation, so I welcome the opportunity to be able to work with whoever the investigator is. When they address the allegations hopefully everybody will see that there were misrepresentations in the initial complaints," Heaton said.
Heaton will remain on as police chief until April 19, when he will be placed on administrative leave until the external investigation is complete. Major Gooding will resign his position on April, 30. In the meantime, the two will assist in the transition of management within the department.
Heaton took some exception to the suggestion made in one of the letters that he had been "proud" of the high numbers of officers that left the department in his tenure. Heaton says that the numbers were not high and if they were he would not have been proud of it.
The turnover rate in the department was approximately 10-percent annually during Heaton's tenure, which Morton says is consistent with what the city saw before Heaton arrived. In his own research, Heaton says he found the national average can vary from 5 to 30-percent annually, and the average new chief experiences close to 50-percent turnover over his first five years.
Speaking about his time with the department, Heaton was proud of his accomplishments and the direction the department had taken.
"There's some great people here in the city and also in the department, the folks are committed, they want the best for the department and the community. We've accomplished a lot at the department over my seven years, we've instituted some programs I'm very proud of like the Citizen's Police Academy and the more recent Auxiliary program. i think that's how you build relationships with people in the community," Heaton said.
As for the dwindling staff at the police department, Heaton said the department is absolutely understaffed. Public safety felt the hurt of dwindling city revenues as much as any department, and the city is just now beginning to gradually add police positions to return nearer to pre-recession police numbers. Heaton says that recent hires will help return his patrol teams to six cars per team. Currently one team has four cars while the others have five. The hires will also, he said, allow the investigations division to add detectives.
On Major Gooding, Heaton said he had been a major asset to Fayetteville.
"I think that that's another pretty significant loss because Major Gooding came with lots of experience," Heaton said, adding "he has done so much for the city and the department to build what we have. I've relied on him and enjoyed our relationship professionally and socially, he's a great guy, and I wish him the best. I know he'll do well wherever he goes and does."
Gooding had not returned a phone call for comment as of press time, but Heaton said he did not think the investigation was the primary reason for his decision to resign.
"He and I had had a discussion back in October. When he first came he said 'I'll stay between anywhere from five and ten years,' well we're there. I think he's always had interests outside the department that he's been wanting to pursue, and I think the time came. In October he told me I think I'm going to leave, but I think it'll be sometime in the spring. So I knew it was coming and I always hoped that he would stay a little longer, but I think that there's a variety of reasons he wants to take on some new challenges," Heaton said.
The investigation has no set timeline, Morton said Thursday, but an expert in work place law has been identified to conduct it, and the process will unfold in the coming weeks and perhaps months. In the meantime, the city will be working with Heaton and Gooding on transitioning the department, while also seeking appropriate replacements for their positions.