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Police Chief Fires Leader of Union

Falls Church Officer Says Airing Of Problems Prompted Ouster

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, July 17, 2006; Page B01

The Falls Church police chief has fired the officer who heads the city's police union and has suspended the union's vice president after they publicly discussed problems with their department's ticket quotas and guns.

The union's leaders noted in 2004 that Falls Church officers were being evaluated based partially on high quotas for writing traffic tickets. They said officers were writing multiple tickets in one traffic stop rather than pursuing more time-consuming matters such as drunk drivers. The police later eliminated ticket quotas in the evaluations.

And last year, after repeatedly trying to address the matter internally, the union publicly reported that the department's new guns regularly malfunctioned during training. The department has since replaced the guns.

But Officer Scott Rhodes, 38, the union president, said he soon was faced with numerous internal violations after his comments were published in The Washington Post. He was fired June 30. Chief Robert T. Murray provided Rhodes with five reasons for the firing, all unrelated to Rhodes's public comments. Rhodes said two of the violations were being appealed, one was found to be baseless by internal affairs, and two were never investigated.

Officer Markus Bristol, 37, was suspended with pay May 23. He said he wasn't sure why and had not been provided any charges.

Murray would not comment, saying he would not discuss personnel matters to "honor each employee's right to confidentiality and privacy."

Rhodes said he was fired "because I brought matters of public concern to the community."

Bristol added, "We brought some issues to the public's attention which embarrassed the city, and now they're coming right after us to destroy us."

Edward J. Nuttall, the union's attorney, said, "The chief's actions have destroyed the department's morale. There is no morale in that department." Last year, after Murray moved slowly on the malfunctioning guns and on implementing a new evaluation system, the union issued a vote of no confidence in the chief.

Nuttall said he has asked city officials "to look at the double standard imposed on union members as opposed to nonunion members" during internal investigations and disciplinary actions. "An investigation would reveal a pattern of abuse," Nuttall said. The city declined to ask for an outside investigation.

When a sergeant accused Rhodes of insubordination, Rhodes said, the same sergeant was then assigned by Murray to perform the internal affairs investigation. When the police file on the department's troublesome guns went missing last year, Murray assigned the investigation to his chief firearms instructor, the person who had helped select the faulty weapon, Rhodes said.

The Falls Church department has about 32 sworn members to police its 2.2 square miles. Police experts said people involved in a case typically are not assigned to investigate it.

"The system is so broken, you can't [challenge] it," Nuttall said. "Who are you going to [challenge] it to, the people who are abusing it?"

Mayor Robin S. Gardner would not comment. City Attorney Roy B. Thorpe Jr. and City Manager Daniel E. McKeever did not return phone calls.

Rhodes had been a Falls Church officer for nearly 10 years and is a former Marine sniper who served in Iraq in Operation Desert Storm. He said he has received no complaints from citizens in recent years but has received unsolicited "thank you" letters.

Bristol has been on the Falls Church force for 10 years and is a former Army military police officer who also served in Desert Storm. He is one of Falls Church's trained canine officers and recently won a prize for his work. Speaking about Rhodes, he said, "My concern is, if he's gone, am I next? I've got a wife and kids."

Nuttall said Rhodes was cited for five violations. He was accused of violating a confidentiality order on the investigation into the missing file, though he was never told he was being investigated and his public comments to The Post came before the order. Similarly, he was accused of negligence for losing his weapon, though he reported the loss and was not told that he faced a violation, Nuttall said.

Rhodes was formally investigated for poor work performance, though he said he had good evaluations and was appealing an initial finding against him. He also was appealing a finding of failure to control his anger, for cursing at a city employee when complaining about errors in his paycheck. A fifth violation for insubordination, which Nuttall said was investigated by the sergeant who filed the complaint, was not substantiated, Nuttall said.

"If Scott's done anything wrong, let's give him a fair charge and a fair hearing," Nuttall said. He said most of the violations Rhodes was accused of would draw a reprimand or other minor discipline. But Rhodes has had no hearings on three of the violations, Nuttall said.

The internal complaints against Rhodes have caused the Falls Church police union's membership to plummet, Rhodes said. Last year, 17 of the 22 officers eligible for membership were in the union. That number has dropped to nine, Rhodes said.