Attorneys for city, mayor argue that Jasper's 1st black police chief's firing not race-related

Published: Feb. 28, 2014 at 5:33 PM CST
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Rodney Pearson
Rodney Pearson

JASPER, TX (KTRE) - In the wake of the federal civil rights lawsuit settlement reached between Jasper's first black police chief, the City of Jasper, and the mayor, attorneys for the defendants issued press releases that stated Rodney Pearson was not fired because of his race.

The attorneys said Pearson was fired because of his lack of command or municipal policing experience, poor performance, and low department morale.

When Pearson sued the defendants in 2012, he claimed that he was wrongfully terminated because of his race. With the settlement that was reached earlier this week, the defendants agreed to pay the former chief of police a total amount of $831,000.

"To avoid the uncertainties and expense of litigation, the City of Jasper decided to settle the claims of Rodney Pearson, and in reality, his race had nothing to do with his termination nor treatment by the City of Jasper," Frank D. Calvert, an attorney for the City of Jasper, said in a press release. "However, rather than continue the protracted litigation arising from his lawsuit, it was deemed in the best interest of the city and its citizens to resolve this case, so the Police Department and the city can move on with serving and protecting the citizens of Jasper without continued false allegations of racism and the distractions caused by such litigation."

Calvert went on to say that the prudent thing was to "settle the claim, stop the expense, and move on." He said the settlement was not an admission of racism or even a matter of justice. It was simply a way "to end a constant barrage of meritless claims of racism."

The attorneys for Jasper Mayor Mike Lout, who is also the owner and operator of the KJAS radio station, echoed Calvert's sentiments in a press release of their own.

"Lout and KJAS categorically deny that former Jasper Police Chief Rodney Pearson was terminated on the basis of his race," the press release stated. "The evidence that was developed in this case did not show anything but a crafty attempt to manipulate facts in order to extort money from the citizens of Jasper."

In their press release, attorneys Mike Getz and David Vann deCordova Jr. said that Cade Bernsen, one of the attorneys for Pearson, and his law firm are "known for public grandstanding."

"Moreover, and shamefully, Bernsen's recitation of the relevant facts are grossly biased, one-sided, and purposefully incomplete," the press release from Lout's attorneys said.

In June 2012, Jasper City Council members voted to dismiss Pearson of his duties. At the time, it was said he was fired over poor job performance.

Many residents and city council members that voted against firing Pearson said the dismissal was based on race.

In a press release, Bernsen Law Firm stated City of Jasper officials intentionally posted different qualifications and education requirements than what were set forth in Jasper's handbook.

The release also stated, Jasper officials attempted to implement a "scoring system" that had never been used for any previous white chief and was not used to hire the current white chief.

In response, Calvert stated that even though Pearson was a former Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, he lacked any municipal police experience, and he ranked 15th out of 22 applicants for the police chief position.

"In addition to being out of law enforcement for almost five years, he lacked command level experience, administrative experience, command level leadership preparation, support services experience, a bachelor or graduate degree, and nationally recognized technical training," Calvert said.

Getz and Vann deCordova stated that Pearson was hired by a majority black City Council and that his lack of experience in leadership roles or municipal policing caused "havoc and low department morale among other problems."

Along those lines, Calvert said that "performance perception and poor morale in the department were what prompted a change - not race."

"It would appear that Pearson's hiring was primarily motivated by the color of his skin," Lout's attorneys said in their press release.

Getz and Vann deCordova said the points system Bernsen alluded to was merely used to narrow down the pool of applicants for the police chief position.

They said it was not used to include or exclude any of the candidates, and that this screening tool resulted in another black applicant being ranked much higher than Pearson. The press release said this other applicant actually had a doctorate and "actual in-the-field" experience as a police chief.

"In a shameful attempt to tarnish and harm Mike Lout, Bernsen failed to mention that Lout, as mayor, recommended the more highly qualified black applicant over Mr. Pearson," Getz and Vann deCordova said in their press release. "Bernsen also ignores as an inconvenient truth that despite the screening tool, which placed Mr. Pearson nearly at the bottom of the list of applicants, the majority-black city council still elected to hire him to be the chief of police."

Lout's attorneys also contended that Pearson's background check revealed a criminal history and that despite having access to the report, the Jasper City Council voted to hire Pearson as police chief anyway.

"Once hired, Pearson began a campaign to systematically demote white Jasper police officers resulting in several lawsuits that were filed against the City of Jasper that cost the city tens of thousands of dollars," Getz and Vann deCordova said in their press release. "Outraged citizens initiated a recall campaign to oust the elected officials who had irresponsibly hired Mr. Pearson into the position of police chief."

According to the press release from Lout's attorneys, Bernsen attempted to stop the recall campaign in federal court, alleging that many of the signatures were forged. The release stated that the recall election was allowed to proceed. As a result, "three of the council members who had voted to hire Mr. Pearson were turned out of office."

Getz and Vann deCordova said that Lout was also subjected to a recall election and that effort was unsuccessful. The attorneys alleged that that effort was organized at a church pastored by Walter Diggles, and the press release pointed out that church was recently the subject of an FBI raid.

Lout's attorneys also said it is a "blatant lie" that the council recall effort was "run out of the KJAS radio station as Bernsen claimed.

"Advertising was sold on the radio station promoting the recall election of the council members that voted to hire Mr. Pearson and KJAS would have run advertisements related to the all-black effort to recall Mike Lout had they been requested to do so," Getz and Vann deCordova said in their press release.

Getz and Vann deCordova said as part of the settlement, all of the involved parties agreed that it would not be used as any form of admission of liability or wrongdoing. They claimed that Bernsen and his client seem have an agenda to pursue, which includes, "the continued punishment of Jasper."

"This harms, rather than advances the cause of true justice and the elimination of racism from the sphere of government decision-making," Getz and Vann deCordova said in their press release. "One day hopefully, our government will hire solely on the basis of character and qualifications, ignoring the pigment of the applicant's skin as envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King. We have far to go in this regard."

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