Reaction To “Barney Fife” Comment Costs Arkansas Police Chief His Job

Tommy Smith was the Chief of Police for the City of Elkins, Arkansas. Smith attended a meeting of the Elkins City Council on April 10, 2003. During the meeting, Smith decided to inquire about proposed enforcement of the building moratorium previously imposed by the City Council.

When Smith took the floor to speak, not only as the Police Chief but as a private citizen, he prefaced his comments regarding the building moratorium by acknowledging that it might be against his self-interest to speak: “I work for the City, and I may be shooting myself in the foot.” According to Smith, one of the Council members, Lacy Randall, responded by stating, “Well, Barney, if you keep your bullet in your pocket, you wouldn’t be shooting yourself through the foot.”

Smith became so upset as a result of this remark that he left the meeting. Shortly afterwards, he spoke to the City’s mayor, Wallace Brt. Smith told the mayor that something needed to be done about Randall’s remarks. Smith also made a comment about wanting to “hit the fat SOB in the nose.” Another City employee at the Council meeting later reported to the mayor that he smelled the odor of alcohol on Smith’s breath that night.

Four days later, Brt issued a written reprimand to Smith for drinking at a public meeting and for his unprofessional comments. A few days later, the mayor discovered that the police reports on several vehicle break-ins and thefts in a local neighborhood had not been placed in the Police Department’s files. Upon learning about the missing or incomplete reports, Brt fired Smith. Smith then filed a lawsuit against Brt, claiming that he was fired in direct retaliation for his comments made at the Council meeting about the building moratorium, and that his comments were protected by the First Amendment.

The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of Smith’s lawsuit. The Court found that Brt’s actions, taken in the course of his job, cloaked him with “qualified immunity.” Under the law of “qualified immunity” in Arkansas, a public official is liable only if the actions violate a clearly-established principle of law of which a reasonable person would have knowledge. The Court found that Smith failed to raise a genuine issue as to whether Brt would have known that his termination of Smith violated a clearly-established right.

The Court stressed that the record was clear that the mayor terminated Smith’s employment upon discovering the reports regarding several vehicular break-ins and thefts that had not been documented. In the eyes of the Court, “the incident upon which Smith’s constitutional claim is based occurred 15 days prior to the termination. Under these circumstances, Brt could not reasonably have known that his termination of Smith’s employment as Police Chief would violate Smith’s constitutional right to free speech.”

Smith v. Brt, 2005 WL 1532426 (Ark. 2005).

This article appears in the August 2005 issue