A personal incident involving Owensboro Police Department K-9 Officer Steven Phillips led to a 26-day, unpaid suspension from OPD. On Monday, Chief Art Ealum opened up about the high standards and professionalism expected out of his officers, and the consequences that sometimes follow inappropriate behaviors that occur off the clock.
Phillips, a 3-year veteran of OPD, was suspended after a formal complaint was issued on May 1. After Phillips turned himself into OPD for racist text messages he sent to a former girlfriend, Ealum filed a complaint stating that an internal investigation would determine whether Phillips violated OPD and/or City of Owensboro policy.
“Officer Phillips presented a letter from his ex-girlfriend’s attorney indicating Phillips had sent racist text messages,” the complaint states. “This investigation is to determine if Officer Phillips sent inappropriate messages and to determine if he performs his duty in accordance with the standards of the Owensboro Police Department.”
Phillips was suspended June 28 after claims of racist text messages were substantiated by the Professional Standards Unit. Ealum agreed with the findings and made a recommendation for suspension to the personnel director and the board of commissioners at City Hall. Ealum said Phillips waived his right to have a hearing and accepted his punishment of suspension.
According to Ealum, police officers are held to higher standards because of their position of public trust.
“It’s not like you can just get off work after your 8-to-5 shift, or whatever time it is and take off your badge and be done with it,” Ealum said. “If you go out into the community and do or say inappropriate things, we try to maintain a culture of professionalism. If something happens, we do address it — plain and simple.”
After Phillips reported himself to OPD for his behavior, an internal investigation was conducted by Ealum and OPD’s professional standards lieutenant that did not reveal any wrongdoing by Phillips on a professional level.
“We looked at his prior history, his performance, the number of complaints that he’s received [internally or externally] and he had no external or internal complaints, no reports of being biased in any situation,” Ealum said. “We looked at his arrest record, his citation record and there was no disparity in how he patrolled this community.”
Ealum said the entire process has been difficult — from the racism exemplified by his employee to the suspension he chose to inflict.
“It’s difficult for me, obviously, because I have to make sure that I separate my personal feelings as an African American male in regard to some of the statements that were made,” he said. “Then I had to make my decisions as Art Ealum the police chief, and not Art Ealum the person.”
Ealum said he likely would have never known of the incident had Phillips not come forward. In fact, this was the first instance of racism he’d encountered by one of his officers during his tenure as chief of police.
“We have a very, very comprehensive policy, and it’s in the City’s policies as well, but situations like this — with social media now — we have counseled or disciplined officers for sharing or liking a post that has a hint of some type of bias in it,” Ealum said. “Some people think that’s a little too harsh because officers did it off duty but, again, we try to be as professional as we can, and you can only do so by holding people accountable.”
With nothing of this magnitude to compare to, Ealum reached out to mentors and peers across the country that he knew and respected in coming to the decision to suspend Phillips for his behavior.
“The range [from other people] was all across the board. Some people said to do nothing, while others said termination,” Ealum said. “Again, I had to carefully process the information we had at hand, how it came about, and then make what I’ve considered a fair and just decision for Officer Phillips.”
According to Ealum, this incident will not change the professional working relationship between Phillips and himself.
“When an officer has been suspended — to me — it’s their opportunity to reconcile whatever issue they had. But to hold that against them for the rest of their career — I’m not that type of person,” Ealum said. “I believe if we can learn from our mistakes, and not repeat those mistakes, we are a better organization for it and a better community for it.”