A fired Lafayette police officer plans to appeal in district court two unanimous decisions the civil service board made Wednesday upholding disciplinary action that led to his dismissal.
The Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board sustained 5- and 7-day suspensions administered to Uletom Hewitt who, over a period of six months in 2011, was suspended twice and later fired.
“Next stop: district court,” said Hewitt’s New Orleans attorney, C. Theodore Alpaugh, after a daylong hearing in city hall.
Board members said a lack of evidence to support Hewitt’s position led to their decision.
“We saw a lot of inconsistencies and discrepancies in what officer Hewitt said and what a lot of other people said,” board member Richard Chappuis said.
Attorney Michael Corry, who represents Lafayette Consolidated Government, agreed.
“The testimony’s been crystal clear by everybody that’s testified, except Mr. Hewitt,” he said.
Hewitt was suspended for five days in March 2011 for his handling of a December 2010 incident at the Acadiana Mall when a suspicious package was found in the food court while he was working off-duty security for Dillard’s.
A mall employee filed a complaint against Hewitt claiming he caused panic by leaving his post at Dillard’s, telling mall patrons there was a bomb and ordering them to evacuate the premises.
Hewitt’s supervisor at the time, Precinct 1 Commander Capt. Luraine Richard, was assigned to investigate the complaint. She testified that she obtained written statements from mall employees and other police officers involved in the incident, all of whom supported the allegations that Hewitt had misled mall patrons about a bomb in the building.
Alpaugh argued that there was no video or audio evidence presented to support the claim, and that Richard erred in failing to obtain witness statements from Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office deputies who were also on the scene that day.
Hewitt also faced allegations that he disobeyed an order to quit telling people the mall was being evacuated and to return to Dillard’s.
In his own testimony, Hewitt argued he never mentioned a bomb to mall customers and that once the emergency situation was underway, store employees and customers turned to him to respond.
“The way I look at this whole incident, I was damned if I do, damned if I don’t. And I’d rather be damned for doing something than for not doing something at all,” Hewitt said.
Although Hewitt presented witness statements from Dillard’s employees commending his behavior while inside the store, he failed to produce evidence that could convince the board he acted properly while outside of Dillard’s.
Hewitt faced a second suspension — this one for seven days — in August 2011 for allegedly failing to classify and upload videos recorded on the in-car camera in his police unit on 86 different occasions over a four-month period.
Hewitt claimed he often worked traffic control and that his supervisor told him he did not have to record while working that beat. However, he failed to produce evidence to support that claim.
Alpaugh ultimately tried to nullify the second suspension on a technicality in the Officers’ Bill of Rights, which requires an investigation leading to disciplinary action be opened and closed within 120 days.
He alleged the department handled Hewitt’s second suspension over a period of 122 days, arguing it began when Richard filed an allegation of misconduct form on Feb. 25, 2011.
The board disagreed with Alpaugh’s argument and sided with Corry and Police Chief Jim Craft, who argued that the investigation did not formally begin until March 2, 2011, when Craft ordered it to move forward.
“I think the city’s evidence is much stronger,” board member Thomas Hayes said.
Hewitt’s hearings had been delayed multiple times, most recently at the board’s December meeting when Alpaugh filed a restraining order against the board in a dispute over issuing subpoenas.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal last summer ordered the board to hear Hewitt’s case, reversing a district court judge’s ruling that had delayed the hearing since spring 2013 while a civil suit alleging corruption and retaliation in the police department was ongoing.
Hewitt was a plaintiff in that case, which was dismissed in August by U.S. District Judge Richard Haik.
A hearing date for Hewitt’s appeal of his Aug. 30, 2011, termination has not been set.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.