Gibson’s former police chief seized vehicles without a warrant and only returned them in exchange for a donation to the town’s drug fund, a state audit released Thursday says.
Police kept vehicles so long they ran up storage fees of $13,000, Tennessee Comptrollers say.
Auditors say they had reason to believe former police chief Taylor Atkins was working just 20 hours a week, about half the amount of time required.
Town officials terminated Atkins in December 2015, said current Police Chief Brad Hardin. Hardin did not say why Atkins was terminated.
Atkins’ home phone number was disconnected Thursday. He did not immediately return a request for comment sent to his personal Facebook page.
Atkins’ LinkedIn page lists him as chief of public safety from November 2007 until his December 2015 termination date. In that position he held authority over the town’s police and fire departments.
According to the audit, Atkins failed to obtain forfeiture warrants and failed to file the proper seizure forms with the state’s Department of Safety and Homeland Security. He didn’t negotiate or enter settlement agreements to return vehicles to their owners.
“In at least two instances, the former police chief demanded vehicle owners make donations to the town drug fund as a condition of having their vehicles returned, even though the vehicles had not been properly or lawfully seized in accordance with state statutes,” the audit said.
The audit blasted town officials for allowing Atkins to slip in his duties.
“Although his signed timecards that indicated he was working 40 or more hours per week, several town officials stated that they observed he was actually working closer to half the number of hours he was reporting for the town.”
In this time, the audit says, Atkins was a full-time high school teacher and assistant football coach.
In their response to the audit, Gibson officials said they “have corrected these deficiencies.”
This isn’t the first time in recent years auditors have called out Tennessee law-enforcement agencies for reportedly abusing search-and-seizure powers.
• As reported last fall, auditors called out sheriff’s deputies in Humphreys County for rarely keeping an inventory of the items they seized for at least 10 years.
• In 2011 the Wartburg Police Department seized a BMW sedan after arresting the owner on narcotics charges, and, according to an audit, the police captain’s wife used the car.
• Last year,members of the Morristown Police Department seized cars and demanded cash, which a police sergeant allegedly kept for himself — $6,000 in all, a state Comptroller’s report said.
• Last spring, Comptrollers called out Graysville police after officers seized a car in a drug arrest and used it illegally. According to state Comptroller Justin Wilson, the city’s animal control chief had exclusive use of the car. Police must use any property they obtain during a narcotics arrest for police business only.
• Also last spring, Knox County Sheriff’s officers invaded a property where a married couple kept horses and arrested and abused the wife when she asked for a search warrant, according to a federal lawsuit. Officers arrested the woman, Debbie Buckner, and detained her in a van without air conditioning for up to two hours in May 2015. Buckner nearly lost consciousness, the lawsuit says. The couple, Debbie Buckner and Mike Sullivan, said animal-control officers seized their horses during an animal-welfare check. Officers said they would only drop charges against them in exchange for a donation to a certain nonprofit for abused and neglected horses, Tennessee Watchdog reported.
The Institute for Justice last year released a study calling Tennessee’s civil forfeiture laws “appalling.”
In an opinion piece, Beacon Center of Tennessee President Justin Owen said “law enforcement agencies can keep almost all of the proceeds they seize. So they have a major incentive to seize property. The more they seize, the more SUVs, drug dogs, and equipment they can buy. Thus born the term ‘policing for profit.’”
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