Mayor Pro Tem unsatisfied with LPD investigation into conduct at leadership retreat

Published 7:36 pm Friday, March 3, 2023

Three LaGrange Police officers in supervisory roles were recently reprimanded for drunken behavior at a leadership retreat in November, but the mayor pro-tem believes their punishment should’ve been more severe.

Many of the details about the investigation came to light after Mayor Pro-Tem Mark Mitchell publicly commented on the investigation during the LaGrange City Council meeting on Feb. 28. During that meeting, the council was confronted by LaGrange resident Israel Barsh about improper behavior by police officers at the retreat.

The investigation became public after videos of an internal LPD investigation were released on the YouTube channel, Georgia Transparency.

Three officers — Captain Mike Pheil, Lt. Chris Pritchett and Sgt. Rebecca Noles — were all suspended as a result of the investigation. Pheil was suspended three days and Pritchett and Noles received two-day suspensions.

All three were determined to have violated the police department’s standards of conduct, specifically sections on professional image and conduct unbecoming of an officer. Noles is accused of sitting in the laps of both Pritchett and Pheil, and Pheil is accused of putting his hand under Noles’ shirt, onto her back.

The Start of the 

Investigation

At the council meeting, Mitchell announced he received an anonymous complaint letter about the retreat on Jan. 7, which he turned over to City Manager Meg Kelsey to investigate. Mitchell later clarified that he received the letter via U.S. mail on Dec. 30 and didn’t give it to Kelsey until Jan. 2 because of the New Year’s Day holiday.

Mitchell claims there was pushback from then-Police Chief Lou Dekmar about doing the investigation. Dekmar, who retired on Feb. 3, denied this assertion, saying he and Kelsey were in agreement that an investigation was needed.

“I would characterize it as she informed me and then said, I think we need an [internal investigation]. Of course, we’d do an IA,” Dekmar said, saying they both agreed the need was obvious.

Mitchell insisted there was pushback from Dekmar into doing the investigation.

“I’m telling you, [Kelsey] told all of us at the council that there was pushback to do an investigation, and she [told him], ‘You will do an investigation,’” Mitchell said.

The LDN reached out to Kelsey multiple times to clarify the discrepancy but only received a “no comment” from her through City Clerk Sue Olson. Kelsey did not respond to numerous phone calls and email requests for an interview.

The Allegations

According to the investigation report conducted by then-Capt. Dale Strickland, the allegations stem from improper activity at a Strategic Planning Retreat that was held at Banning Mills in Whitesburg from Nov. 14-16. Strickland is currently serving as interim chief after Dekmar’s retirement, but he was not the chief at any point as he oversaw the investigation.

The anonymous complaint alleged that several supervisors, including Capt. Mike Pheil and Sgt. Rebecca Noles consumed alcohol, became intoxicated and were involved in misconduct. It is unclear who wrote the anonymous letter.

Dekmar said the department followed policy with the investigation, which is to investigate all complaints against the department or its employees, including complaints received anonymously.

Strickland said Dekmar directed him to conduct the investigation on the morning of Jan. 4. The complaint alleged that all supervisors were drinking alcohol and some “questionable things” took place with Pheil and Noles, specifically that Noles had sat in the lap of Pheil, he was touching her and possibly had his hand under her shirt or jacket.

Over the month of the investigation, Strickland completed 27 interviews with staff members that were at the retreat, turning over his findings to Dekmar on Friday, Jan. 27.

Strickland’s report revealed that many officers had left Banning Mills on Monday, Nov. 14, 2023, to go to the Taco Mac in Newnan for dinner. While at dinner, multiple officers consumed alcohol at the restaurant while off duty. Strickland noted that no alcohol consumed during the retreat was paid for by the city of LaGrange.

The officers then returned to Banning Mills, gathering in a back deck area, where alcohol was continued to be consumed.

According to the report, there was a preponderance of evidence that Pheil, Noles and Pritchett consumed alcohol and became intoxicated with other officers. While intoxicated, Noles consensually sat in the lap of Pheil and Pritchett, who are her direct supervisors.

Pheil was later seen holding Noles’ face and neck while separated from the group, per the investigation document.

Pheil was also accused of making inappropriate comments regarding Noles, including singing a rendition of “Baby Got Back” in reference to her.

Noles was also seen briefly sitting in the lap of Sgt. Joshua Clower before being assisted to a chair. She was later physically escorted to her room and to bed due to her level of intoxication. Pritchett assisted Noles to bed and participated in partially disrobing her before leaving and securing her room, according to the report.

During her interview, Noles stated she remembered taking her shirt off as Pritchett and Clower were leaving her room, but she didn’t recall who took her pants off. Pritchett told Strickland he had taken Noles’ pants off during his interview. Noles said she didn’t feel as though she was taken advantage of, and she trusted Pritchett due to their lengthy relationship. There were no sexual harassment allegations made during the interviews of all of the officers at the retreat.

During Pheil’s interview, he indicated that he did not remember Noles sitting in his lap because he was intoxicated. He said Noles may have sat in his lap, but he could not imagine putting his hand under her shirt. Pheil said in a follow-up interview with Strickland that prescription medication combined with alcohol may have added to his impairment.

The Fallout

As a result of the investigation, Pheil and Pritchett were determined to have allowed Noles, his subordinate, to sit in their lap while they were intoxicated. Noles was determined to have become so intoxicated that she needed to be physically escorted to her room.

All three supervisors were determined to have violated the police department’s standards of conduct, specifically sections on professional image and conduct unbecoming of an officer.

Dekmar and Strickland indicated that no officers were determined to have broken the law, whether by driving drunk or through sexual harassment.

“There was no funding of any alcohol or mileage by the LaGrange Police Department or the City of LaGrange, and there was no evidence of workplace or sexual harassment,” said Strickland in the report.

Following the investigation, Pheil received three days suspension, Pritchett received two days suspension, and Noles received two days suspension from Dekmar.

Questioning the Punishment

Mitchell disagreed with the amount of punishment that was given to the officers, particularly Pheil, whom he said Dekmar had known for 28-plus years.

“The behavior that was described in that video absolutely deserves more than three days off,” Mitchell said. “How can you let somebody that has just demonstrated knee-walking drunk behavior, letting a subordinate sit in your lap and you put your arm up her shirt in the back, caressing her, caressing her face? How can you let that person still supervise that same person? If she does something wrong, he’s going to be the one who has to punish her. He’s the one that has to promote her.”

Mitchell insisted he doesn’t have a vendetta against Dekmar, saying even though they have occasionally disagreed, the former chief has handled himself well.

“It’s not a vendetta. I truly believe Chief Dekmar is a bright, smart supervisor and chief,” Mitchell said. “But it does not make it right for you to punish the smaller guy and let the bigger guy go.”

Mitchell said Pheil should have been demoted and at the very least no longer be supervising Noles.

Dekmar said demoting Pheil would not be consistent with punishments given in the past and noted he did punish him more than the Noles and Pritchett, suspending him for three days rather than two.

“I look at disciplines as how I’ve handled these in the past. I have had officers arrested for alcohol-related [incidents], like DUI. I’ve had ranking members like a sergeant arrested for DUI, and they were not demoted and this was not a criminal offense,” Dekmar said referring to his entire time as a police chief. “I make judgments based on the facts and circumstances and also considering how we’ve handled other incidents.”

Questioning the Investigation

Mitchell also questioned the timeline of the investigation.

During the council meeting on Jan. 28, Mitchell said Dekmar waited until his last day on the job to turn over the results of the investigation, saying they were given the report after 4 p.m. on Friday on his way out.

Dekmar doesn’t deny he turned over the investigation on his last day. The investigation concluded on Jan. 31. Punishments and subsequent appeals were done on Feb. 1-2, and he turned over the report on Friday, Feb. 3, his final day.

Strickland said the LPD tries to complete internal investigations within 30 days. The investigation began on Jan. 4 and the report was turned over on Feb. 3. Strickland and Dekmar both noted that more time would have been justified as well due to the department also dealing with two murders during that time and the city being hit by a tornado.

Mitchell also questioned whether Dekmar tried to initially hide the behavior, saying officers were overheard discussing the incident at a Thanksgiving lunch attended by the chief.

Dekmar said he had heard some rumblings about the incident, but he was not told specifics at that time. Dekmar said he’d heard that a few officers might’ve had too much to drink, so his initial reaction in November was to immediately ban alcohol from future retreats. Strickland also said alcohol will be banned at future retreats.

Mitchell also questioned why wasn’t Dekmar interviewed.

Dekmar stated he left the retreat to have dinner at home while the others had taken the trip to Taco Mac. He said he briefly returned and spoke to some officers who were still up, but the three officers involved in the investigation had gone to their rooms by that point. He said if he’d been asked to be interviewed, he simply would’ve said he was not there when the behavior occurred. He said there was no indication anything inappropriate had taken place that night after he left for dinner.

Several interviewees mentioned photos of Noles sitting in Pheil’s lap that were deleted. Mitchell questioned why Strickland did not download information from officer’s phones.

Dekmar said if there had been any conflict over the information they would have sought the images, but no one was denying what happened.

“All the behavior was admitted, and they said they deleted it,” Dekmar said. “There was no allegation made that wasn’t corroborated by the folks that were interviewed.”

Moving forward

Mitchell said since the initial investigation, new accusations have come to light involving an earlier incident involving Pheil, who has been placed on paid administrative leave.

The investigation will be independent and conducted by someone outside the LaGrange Police Department.

The specifics of the investigation are unclear.

“I have been reaching out to other chiefs in the Georgia area to request an investigator from a department outside of ours to come in and complete that internal investigation for us,” Strickland said.

Mitchell argues that the previous investigation should have been done independently as well. LPD policy was followed with the investigation, but Mitchell noted Strickland is too close to many of the officers to be unbiased.

“I’m not getting on to Dale, but I’m telling you, he should have recused himself because I know, just as he knows, he’s got very close personal relationships with officers there. He’s interviewed them one-on-one. You can’t do that. You’re not supposed to do that,” Mitchell said.