The local police union has requested that the Pensacola City Council subpoena and investigate Mayor Ashton Hayward regarding an incident that occurred during the Oct. 19 Gallery Night. The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 71 informed the council Thursday that its members believed the mayor had “misused the power of his office to intimidate” officers and called his actions “shocking and inexcusable.”
“I’m nauseated hearing the chain of events that occurred,” said Councilwoman Maren DeWeese.
The council eventually decided to “hear both sides of the story.” After reviewing all the relevant information it will consider the best course of action during its Nov. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting.
“I assume once they find the facts out they will call for an official investigation,” FOP District One Director Robert Bell said outside the council meeting.
Several rows worth of FOP members attended the meeting, where the union’s letter was read to city officials by Bell. He recounted an officer’s account of a scene in which the mayor took issue with the police—and the use of sirens, lights and loudspeakers—opening the street at 9 p.m. following Gallery Night.
“The officer said that Mayor Hayward appeared to be disheveled, not as neat and proper as he has seen him in the past,” Bell read from the letter. “The officer said that Mayor Hayward asked him, ‘who’s in charge of this? Mayor Hayward was using a highly agitated voice, sometimes to the point of almost yelling.”
According to the FOP letter, a man who identified himself as “a city official” and someone that “works closely with Mayor Hayward” approached a police car as it was clearing people off of Palafox Street. The man inquired what the officer was doing and told her that “Mayor Hayward was not happy with how the officers were opening the streets and that the mayor was calling Chief Simmons.” The man said that he and the mayor were under the impression that Gallery Night did not end until midnight.
The letter continues, detailing how “the man said the actions that the officers were taking portrayed them as ‘terrorists’” and then walked away after the officer called a supervisor. The man is not named in the letter—“the officer does not remember the man’s name.”
Councilwoman Maren Deweese commented that the council was probably aware of the identity of the man—“I think we know who the other person is that represented himself as a good friend of the mayor”—and then later outside Pensacola City Hall, Bell confirmed the man to be John Peacock, a recent appointee to the Downtown Improvement Board, which oversees Gallery Night.
In a separate incident, according to the FOP, the mayor approached an officer driving down South Jefferson Street. Hayward was apparently upset about the methods being used to remove people from the street, comparing the tactics to “Beirut.”
“Mayor Hayward then ordered the officer to get on his police radio and tell the supervisor to relax and to tell everyone else to relax as well, because this is not ‘Beirut,’” the letter reads. “The officer told Mayor Hayward that he was relaxed. Mayor Hayward then said, ‘Get on that mic and tell him to relax. You want me to do it?’”
The letter continues to detail how a supervisor was called and made contact with the mayor. It also alleges that a third officer was “treated badly by the mayor because she did not immediately acknowledge him.”
While members of the council repeatedly assured the FOP that they “believe” and “trust” the officers—Councilman P.C. Wu apologized to them—they also said that they needed to hear from the mayor’s office before deciding if they should look into the issue.
“You cannot make judgement until you hear from both sides of the story,” said Councilman John Jerralds.
Councilwoman Sherri Myers made a motion for relevant information—from the police, DIB and the mayor’s office—to be gathered. She said the council should consider that information during the Nov. 13 COW meeting to determine if an investigation into the mayor’s actions are appropriate.
“We need to resolve this,” she said. “We don’t need to just shove it under the carpet.”
Councilman Larry Johnson requested that Hayward provide a written response to the FOP’s letter. He said he trusted the FOP—“if we can’t trust our police officers, who can we trust?”—but that he needed to hear the mayor’s account of the evening.
“There’s two sides to every story, and I’m looking forward to hearing the other side,” Johnson said.
Wu told the FOP that the officers involved in the encounters should not fear repercussion— “because you speak, you are not put in danger.”
Councilman Brian Spencer said he felt sure the mayor would respond to the FOP’s address to the council. He said that the incident served to highlight conflicts concerning Gallery Night.
“It’s a collision, it’s a juxtaposition of two different uses of the same swath of pavement,” Spencer said.
The council voted 8-1 to accept information pertaining to the FOP’s accusation that the mayor improperly used his position to intimidate officers and to review it in consideration of an investigation. Spencer was the lone dissenting vote.
Liz Watkins, a member of the public in attendance, asked why Hayward wasn’t present to address the issue.
“Why isn’t the mayor coming to these meetings?” she asked council. “You could hear his other side right now instead of waiting until the thirteenth.”
In the hallway outside council chambers, City Administrator Bill Reynolds said he couldn’t discuss the issue. He directed questions to the city’s public information officer.
Outside city hall, Police Chief Chip Simmons spoke with FOP members in the breezeway. He declined to make a comment to the press.
“I think for me to speak at this point is premature,” he said.
Bell said he felt the incident described in the FOP letter was indicative of a larger trend, and said the “lack of respect” would continue if they didn’t call attention to the matter. The local FOP president, Erik Goss, had also spoken about the issue of respect earlier in the council meeting.
“It’s just a pattern of disrespect we’ve felt for a while,” he told the council. “It’s just kind of boiling over.”
Over the summer, the FOP took a ‘no confidence’ vote in the mayor’s chief of staff, John Asmar. The mayor’s office responded with a statement painting the move as being related to ongoing contract negotiations.
Bell said after tonight’s meeting that the FOP’s request for an investigation and accusations of intimidation were not related to the union’s contract negotiations.
“No, this isn’t retaliation,” he said, noting that the city had declared an impasse. “Impasse means they have taken negotiations out of our hands.”