The city of Hinesville’s Grievance and Appeals Committee unanimously decided Tuesday to uphold a decision by Police Chief George Stagmeier and City Manager Billy Edwards to fire former police officer Mark Scott. While admitting he made some mistakes that warranted disciplinary action, Scott appealed their September 2011 decision, saying none of his mistakes, when considered separately, warranted termination.
Those mistakes, or more specifically, the allegations against Scott, who served with the Hinesville Police Department for four years and was serving on the Multi-Agency Crack Enforcement task force at the time of his termination, included abandoning his place of duty to conduct personal business, unauthorized use of a government vehicle for personal use, unauthorized transport of a civilian in a government vehicle and violation of police department standard operating procedures and state law regarding texting while driving.
City Attorney Linnie L. Darden III called five witnesses to testify for the city: Assistant Police Chief Maj. Julian Hodges; Lt. Jeff Hein, Scott’s supervisor; internal investigator Sgt. Bill Kirkendall; MACE Task Force Commander James C. Reid; and Stagmeier. Wesley Woolf, a Savannah attorney, called only one witness, his client, Mark Scott.
According to Darden, on the evening of Aug. 31, while on duty, Scott responded to a phone call from his girlfriend that she was in the emergency room at St. Joseph’s/Candler Hospital in Savannah. Scott reportedly left Liberty County in his police cruiser without calling his supervisor and drove to Savannah, where he stayed with his girlfriend until she was released from the hospital. He then reportedly drove her to her home in Pooler using the police cruiser. Shortly after midnight, while he was driving back to Hinesville, Scott hit a pedestrian — a black male wearing camouflage clothing — who was walking on Ga. 196 in Liberty County. Cell phone records later indicated that Scott was texting his girlfriend repeatedly while driving back to Hinesville.
Darden admitted there was no evidence that Scott was texting at the precise time of the accident but noted his prior history of vehicle accidents were evidence that Scott’s driving record was a liability to the city.
“It’s one thing to hit guardrails, telephone poles and even other vehicles,” Darden explained, noting the four accidents Scott was involved in from March 2008 to October 2008. “Now he’s hit a person. Mr. Scott would be a high liability for the city if he kept his job.”
Woolf defended his client’s earlier vehicle accidents, noting they all occurred during Scott’s first year on the police force, that Scott had not had another accident in nearly three years. He also pointed out that the state trooper’s report on the pedestrian accident was inconclusive, that Scott was not faulted or charged. He reiterated there was no evidence that Scott was texting at the exact time of the accident, and he noted that while Scott was conducting personal business, he had used his laptop to complete the required search warrant and operations order his supervisor had tasked him to have ready by the following morning.
When he testified, Scott said he never saw anyone in the dark roadway, and added that even after he stopped and turned around, he had a difficult time seeing the man limping down the road. He suggested the pedestrian must have stepped into the path of his vehicle.
Scott also testified that his cell phone included software that allowed him to text hands-free. Committee member Beverly Pitts asked him to further explain how the software works, but Darden later noted that state law makes no allowances for hands-free devices, adding that even with the special software, Scott would have had to turn his attention from the road to the phone to “press a button.”
Woolf argued that Scott had been a fine police officer and investigator for the drug task force, and that he had worked in a “flexible environment,” where officers had been allowed to use “compensatory” time to conduct personal business and sometimes use their cruisers for personal business. He asserted that other officers had testified they knew of officers using their vehicles for personal business or transporting civilians but were given only minimal punishments. They were not terminated, Woolf emphasized.
Darden argued that the city had looked at the totality of allegations against Scott for the events of Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 which, when combined with his previous driving record, warranted Scott’s termination.
Following an hour-long recess for deliberations, Committee Chairman Kenneth Pangburn led members Justin McCartney, Michael Moody, Eric Waters and Pitts, back into the city hall council chamber where each member upheld the city’s decision.