By Rhonda Cook
Despite a special investigator's scathing report, only one person has been disciplined over the gruesome video images taken of a wreck victim in Spalding County.
At least so far.
At the investigator's urging, Spalding County terminated the firefighter who took the video images of the dead woman in the wreck last summer.
Former firefighter Terrance Reid has admitted he used the video function on his cell phone to capture the grotesque images of Dayna Kempson-Schacht still inside her car that crashed into a tree. And he shared that video with others.
His career with the Spalding County Fire Department ended soon after the video went into cyberspace and made its way to the 23-year-old mother’s parents.
But the attorney-investigator who recommended Reid's firing also suggested interim Fire Chief Kenny West be fired as well and that several supervisors be disciplined for lying, dereliction and simply failing to lead and consequently, allowing those images to be shared on the Internet.
West and the others named in the report are still working for the Spalding County Fire Department.
But spokeswoman Virginia Beams said Monday interim county manager Tim Whalen will announce this week what decisions have been made about their careers with Spalding County.
“Mr. Whalen has made decisions about employment actions with others in the report, other than Chief West. I can’t say what they are because he has not met with them," Beams said.
That announcement could come as soon as Tuesday.
As for West, Beams said, “we have not taken any action yet or proposed any action. We have been in discussions with his attorney about the best way to move.”
West is on leave until the end of the year. He did not return a message left Monday and there was no answer to several calls to him on Tuesday.
The shock of what happened just before midnight on July 17 along U.S.19-41 where it bypasses Griffin have been reported in the national media, focusing mostly on the decision to photograph the dead woman and then to share those images.
“There does not appear to be any intent on the part of Reid to cause the family harm or injury,” attorney Christopher Balch wrote in a report to Whalen of his investigation. “These horrific events demonstrate Reid’s reckless disregard for the humanity of the persons Reid comes into contact with in the course of his official duties.”
The firing of Reid, however, is the only punishment Spalding County has handed out so far.
“Chief West should bear similar culpability in the eyes of the community for this horrific conduct, which resulted in such a reckless disregard for the humanity of the persons the fire department exists to serve,” Balch wrote. “… The gravity of the failures in leadership, supervision and training constitute a dereliction of duty by Chief West which justify his termination by Spalding County,” Balch wrote.
West is still on the job.
There has also been no discipline for Capt. Buford Lee Slaughter, who was just a few feet away as Reid moved around the crashed car to capture images on his cell phone of Kempson-Schacht. Slaughter denied he saw anything when he was questioned by Balch.
“There is credible evidence that Captain Slaughter made a comment [captured on the video] to the effect ‘move over here and you can get a better angle,’” Balch wrote in his report. “The evidence shows clearly and convincingly that Capt. Slaughter was deficient in his duties, responsibilities and obligations. His conduct on this occasion shows him to be unfit for command … Had Capt. Slaughter performed his supervision in a more appropriate manner, the video might not have been taken in the first place.”
Slaughter did not respond to a message left at the Spalding County Fire Department on Monday and calls to the department Tuesday were not answered.
Lt. Mike Windham, who is no longer with the Spalding County Fire Department, knew of the video but did not report it and did nothing to ensure it was deleted from Reid’s phone and that it was not shared, Balch said.
“Windham should receive a strongly worded reprimand for failing to recognize his obligation as a supervisor,” Balch wrote. “In addition, the reprimand should include language that he is not to supervise anyone until he receives additional training.”
Windham declined to comment on Tuesday.
Five firefighters admitted that they saw Reid recording the crash scene, and they all agreed “they thought taking the video was wrong.” But they said nothing. For that, Balch wrote, the five should “receive a written cautionary instruction.”
Balch said this one incident was allowed to happen because “there is little or no accountability in this department. Instead, it seems that employees and supervisors are trying to protect themselves and avoid the next disciplinary write-up.”
BENNETT AND REID V. DAVID WATERS,
United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
Case No. 07-12314
(This opinion is not published. For a copy, please contact BLG.)
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed
judgment won by the Firm for its client in this lengthy litigation
over politics in a suburban Atlanta County. In 1999, Forsyth County
Commissioners submitted a referendum to county voters to create
a county police force. Plaintiffs were in favor of the referendum
which was opposed by the then-sheriff, Denny Hendrix. The referendum
was resoundingly defeated. Plaintiffs claim that after the referendum,
the sheriff undertook a pattern of harassment of them and others
who had supported the referendum, and that the sheriff was aided
by his chief deputy and the head of his Criminal Investigations
Division, Major David Waters. Plaintiff’s complaint originally
included 18 claims and over a dozen defendants. After 6 years of
litigation during which all but three defendants and 2 claims were
dismissed by the Trial Court, the case went to trial on April 17,
2007. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Waters on claims by
Reid and could not reach a verdict on Bennett’s claims against
Waters. The jury returned a verdict of over $8,000,000 against the
two remaining codefendants. The District Court then heard argument
on Defendants’ motions for judgment as a matter of law and
granted those motions dismiss the remaining 42 U.S.C. § 1983
claim under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
After review, that judgment was affirmed by the Court of Appeals.
Although this case took over 8 years to reach resolution, the perseverance
of the firm and its client to see the fight through to the end carried
the day. First Amendment claims are often fact intensive and complex.
This case was no different. However, the Courts ultimately saw the
case for what it was and reached the correct resolution.
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