Covington officer demoted, suspended for referee arrests

Associated Press file photo -- Referees often draw the ire of coaches and fans, but they don't typically get arrested. Show caption
Associated Press file photo -- Referees often draw the ire of coaches and fans, but they don't typically get arrested.

Covington chief suspends, demotes Short for violations

Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz threw a flag for unprofessional conduct on one of his officers Monday, giving Lt. Stephen Short a two-week suspension without pay and demoting him to sergeant for his role in the controversial arrest of two football officials during an October game in Covington.

Lentz said Short’s “temper probably took over” and he violated four departmental policies during the Oct. 11 incident, when an argument among the two game officials and Short over crowd control ended with the officials in handcuffs and the game delayed more than 20 minutes.

Each game official was booked on a count of public intimidation of a police officer, but the charges were later dropped.

A second high-ranking Police Department officer involved in the incident decided to retire.

In an official notice of discipline sent to Short, Lentz said Short escalated the confrontation by refusing to accede to the game officials’ request to move some fans who were close to the sideline. Short instead arrested one official and escorted him off the field, before returning to the field to find the other official and place him under arrest as well.

“While law enforcement action may have been necessary,” Lentz wrote to Short, “the physical arrest of two referees for public intimidation, bringing a high school football game to a halt, was unnecessary and improper.”

Short’s temper “clouded his ability to make a good judgment call,” Lentz said. According to an official notice of discipline, Short has had temper issues in the past, going as far back as his pre-employment evaluation. He has been disciplined once in the past seven years for “similar behavior,” Lentz wrote.

The arrests drew national attention and a threat by the Greater New Orleans Football Officials Association to boycott all games in Covington.

But less than a week after the arrests — and just two days after Lentz was sworn in as police chief — Mayor Mike Cooper and Lentz held a news conference to apologize for the arrests and announce that District Attorney Walter Reed had agreed not to prosecute the two officials.

Short violated a department policy, Lentz said, by not looking for alternative resolutions to the situation rather than arresting the referees, even though they posed no risk to him.

Lentz also said Short’s conduct had brought discredit to the department. The incident was “embarrassing” and directed the national media spotlight to the Covington Police Department, Lentz wrote. He said he received “daily phone calls from the media about his actions.”

Short also was at fault for arresting the two referees without even knowing what crime to charge them with, Lentz wrote in the disciplinary letter. In fact, it was only after arresting the two officials and driving back to the Police Department that Short phoned an assistant district attorney to help him determine what charges to file. The letter doesn’t name the assistant district attorney.

A spokesman for Reed said he did not know whom Short spoke with but that it is not unusual for police to consult with the DA’s office about what charges to file.

In addition to the suspension, Short has been demoted one rank, from lieutenant to sergeant, Lentz said. He will be unable to apply for promotion for 18 months.

Before Short can return from his suspension, he will have to undergo an evaluation by a mental health professional, Lentz said. “I want to make sure he is mentally and emotionally fit to serve as a policeman,” Lentz said.

During a predisciplinary hearing Dec. 24, Short chose not to present a defense of his actions based on the advice of his attorney, Lentz said.

Short was one of two officers under investigation for the Oct. 11 incident. The other, Capt. Jack West, announced earlier this month that he would retire at the end of this month. That announcement effectively ended the investigation into West, who was interim chief of the department at the time and was at the game but did not intervene in the arrests.

The investigation into West’s conduct centered around a “heated discussion” he and Short had at the game and whether West acted improperly by not disciplining Short or intervening in the arrests, according to a notice of investigation Lentz sent to West.

Lentz said he hoped the incident is finally behind him. “This discipline issue has consumed a large part of my time,” he said.

During the investigation, he bemoaned the due-process constraints of the civil service system, in which each step of an investigation can take as much as 60 days and an accused employee is allowed to have an attorney present at each step.

Before becoming Covington’s police chief, Lentz served 30 years in the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office, which is not a civil service agency.

The issue has also slowed Lentz’s efforts to reform the department, which under former Chief Richard Palmisano was plagued by complaints of excessive force. Those complaints — and the eventual arrest of two officers — led Cooper to fire Palmisano in April.

Short has 15 days in which to file an appeal with the Covington Police and Fire Civil Service Board.

Messages left with Short’s attorney Monday were not returned.