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Police & Fire News

October 8, 2013

Merit board reinstates NAPD officer fired by chief

Chief Sherri Knight says officer presents potential risks

NEW ALBANY — A New Albany officer has been reinstated by the police merit board after disciplinary charges issued by NAPD Chief Sherri Knight led to his termination from the department.

Officer Philip Houchin, 33, was immediately reinstated following a 4-1 vote by the New Albany Police Merit Commission, which met in the City-County Building Thursday evening. Houchin, who had been an officer with the department since 2005, was fired nearly a year ago after Knight determined he was unfit for duty and issued three disciplinary charges against him.

After the vote, Knight read a prepared statement to the commission that expressed her dissatisfaction with the vote. Following the meeting, Knight explained that she issued the disciplinary, not criminal, charges after Houchin was given a mental-health evaluation and she had reviewed the results.

The results of the evaluation, as seen in the charging documents, show Houchin was diagnosed with a disorder that results in violent and/or angry outbursts; Houchin had spoken strongly and aggressively about NAPD administrators; and Houchin had armed himself with a gun before a confrontation outside of his home in 2009.

Knight said Houchin’s service as a police officer presents “a lot of potential risks” if he elects not to take his medications as prescribed for his behavioral disorder.

However, the merit commission president said multiple medical evalautors conculded Houchin was healthy enough to do his job.

“Three doctors said Officer Houchin was fit for duty,” said NAPD Merit Commission President Eddie Hodges. “There was other evidence as well, but it’s hard for someone to say he is not fit for duty when three medical professionals say he is.”

Houchin declined to provide comment to the story, saying only, “I wish I could talk about it.”

“This has been going on for quite some time,” Knight said. “It started with Officer Houchin telling us that he needed shift changes, which we were not able to accommodate, and it evolved into these proceedings.”

Laurie Kemp, with the New Albany law firm Kightlinger & Gray, which provides legal counsel for the NAPD, spoke on behalf of Knight following the meeting.

“I don’t think we can talk about [Houchin’s] actual diagnosis ... but, it dealt with a mental-health issue and concerns with his fitness for duty as an officer,” Kemp said.

She said Houchin notified the department of a “health issue” after he had taken a leave of absence, which led to an examination of his fitness for duty.

“We had no knowledge of any health issues. He initially took off for an extensive period of time after being denied a request for shift change,” Knight said.

While Houchin’s privacy rights have blurred what exactly transpired leading to Knight issuing the charges for his termination, it appears he has had no negative-performance issues while on the job. When asked if there were any issues related to Houchin’s job performance that were cause for concern, Knight said, “None that had been brought to my attention.”

Knight said she is pleased to have the issued resolved, despite it not being determined in her favor.

“It has been going on way too long. We are glad to have it behind us, although we still disagree with the commission’s findings. But however, we are ready to move forward.”

John Hall, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 99 in New Albany and NAPD sergeant, commented on Houchin’s reinstatement, but clarified that he could only speak on behalf of the FOP and not the NAPD.

When asked about the nearly 15 people who attended the meeting only to observe, Hall said, “That was a show of support of Officer Houchin. There was a large number of the officers that he works with that believe in him, trust him, that wanted to be here to let the merit commission know we trust him and believe in him.”

Hall said he expects Houchin will be reintroduced to the department without any problems.

“Officer Houchin will do fine. He was an officer that had no complaints against him prior to this. A good officer, always performed well,” Hall said. “I’ve supervised him before, and he will be coming back to my shift. I am looking forward to having him back. He is a solid police officer that does a good job.”

 

THE CHARGES

The charging documents were provided by the law firm Faith, Ingle & Smith in New Albany, which represents the commission.

Brandon Smith, an attorney with the firm, said two charges — the last of the three shown below — were rejected outright by the commission.

The 4-1 vote by the commission for reinstatement was only on the first of the three charges show.

While he does not represent Houchin, Smith pointed out that information favorable to Houchin was presented during a closed-door hearing that occurred over the course of two days the week before he was reinstated.

 

FIRST CHARGE

The first charge was a violation of the department’s rules and regulation, specifically, “incapacity,” according to the document, and the only charge that the commission took to a vote prior to Houchin’s reinstatement.

The document states that Houchin met with Knight and NAPD Maj. Keith Whitlow in April 2012 and requested a “hardship transfer” from third to first shift based on domestic issues. After the request was rejected, “Houchin was granted to use all of his accumulated vacation and other personal time off as a means to remedy his domestic issues.”

Two months later, on June 20, 2012, Houchin had exhausted all of his allowable time off, and began a long-term medical leave, which was granted by a physician pending an evaluation by a mental-health specialist.

On Sept. 26, 2012, Houchin had exhausted all of his allowable medical leave and was removed from the police payroll the following day.

Houchin and Knight spoke on the phone Sept. 28, at which time he told her that his mental-health specialist planned to clear him to return to duty Oct. 8, 10 days later.

Knight and Whitlow met with Houchin Oct. 3, 2012, at which time he told his ranking officers that he had been diagnosed with a mental disorder related to violent and/or angry verbal outbursts.

He also told Knight and Whitlow that he had been prescribed medications and was told to continue working with his mental-health specialist to “manage his emotional volatility and impulsive behaviors,” according to the charging documents.

“Houchin told Chief Knight and Maj. Whitlow that he had many ‘monsters to deal with,’ but he ‘felt better now,’” the document reads.

Based on the information Houchin provided to the police administrators, he was evaluated by mental-health professional Michael Maguire at a facility in Indianapolis on Nov. 7, 2012.

Maguire provided a written report to Knight a week later that indicated Houchin, “did not possess the emotional stability to perform law enforcement duties in a safe and effective manner.”

According to the document, a second mental-health professional evaluated Houchin in 2012 and found that he had the same anger-management disorder another professional had diagnosed.

 

SECOND CHARGE

Knight also charged Houchin with conduct unbecoming of an officer and conduct injurious to the public, based on information provided to her from Maguire’s report following his evaluation of the officer.

Maguire reported that Houchin shared with him details of an incident that occurred in July 2009 outside of his Palmyra home. The incident involved a shirtless Houchin arming himself with a police-issued 45-caliber pistol before confronting people outside his home.

According to the charging information, Houchin told Maguire that he had been asleep in his home at about 11:30 a.m., and the confrontation resulted because a group of people outside of his home were making noise with a motorcycle engine.

“Houchin said he was in a ‘[expletive] rage’ because of the [noise] and had ‘stormed over’ to the house where the group of people was [sic] gathered,” according to the document.

Houchin told the Maguire that he threatened to kick over the motorcycles if the noise continued.

He said during the session that he was only wearing a pair of shorts, and, specifically, said he was not wearing a shirt. He had tucked the firearm in back of his shorts, Houchin told the Maguire.

Houchin also told the specialist he had “scared his wife to death” because he had “stormed over there, you know, you know, [with a] gun in my shorts,” according to the charging document.

He is reported to have use the phrase “problemo solved,” to describe for Maguire the result of the confrontation outside his home.

 

THIRD CHARGE

The third and last charge issued by Knight against Houchin also is for conduct unbecoming of an officer and conduct injurious to the public. It is based on the report filed by Maguire after the Nov. 7, 2012, session.

Maguire reported Houchin referred to both Knight and Whitlow as “the [expletive] clowns upstairs.”

Houchin told Maguire, according to the charging documents, after he was refused a shift transfer, he was “madder than a [expletive] hornet, too, buddy” and he would have “probably flipped the desk over the chief, because, I mean, I was so [expletive] mad, I didn’t want to see her, didn’t even want to talk to her.”

He told the Maguire he used those words to his captain and sergeant during a counseling session with them after he returned to work June 15, 2012, after he has exhausted all of his vacation and personal days, but before taking his medical leave.

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