WILMINGTON – One year ago, Wilmington Police Sergeant Kenneth Becker became a viral sensation when he wrongly told an Uber-driving attorney that it was illegal to film law enforcement officers. Becker is now “separated” from the force, but he wasn’t fired over the Uber incident.
Becker stayed on the force for nearly a year before, at the end of January, he had his rank and pay restored — and backdated to September. The following day, Becker was off the force.
It’s not clear how – or why – Becker left the job just one day after getting a promotion and a raise from the city. Even the Police Department appears partially in the dark about how Becker was reinstated as, apparently, Becker’s demotion was overturned by the city’s Civil Service Commission, a little-known group that can overrule personnel decisions made by the department.
The traffic stop heard round the world
Becker was part of a task-force stop that detained Uber driver Jesse Bright because they suspected his passenger of being involved in a drug deal. Early in the stop, Becker told Bright to stop filming, saying “turn it off or I’m taking you to jail.”
Shortly afterward, an unidentified deputy with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office confirmed Bright’s incredulous request to know what law banned filming law enforcement officers. The deputy told Bright “they just passed it.” That was not true.
Bright did not stop filming and, after he posted the video to Facebook, it went viral. The video received tens of millions of views on several YouTube channels. While both Becker and the NHCSO deputy both tried to get Bright to stop filming by incorrectly claiming it was illegal, it was Becker’s threat to take Bright to jail that apparently made him the unwilling star of the viral video.
The story attracted stories by the Washington Post, The Daily Mail and the New York Post, which ran the blunt headline “Cop gets demoted for lying to Uber driver” when, after several weeks of internal investigation, Becker was demoted to corporal and reassigned.
In a statement at the time, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous said, “I cannot stress enough, that photographing and videotaping the police keeps us accountable. We believe that public videos help to protect the police as well as our citizens and provide critical information during police and citizen interaction.”
New Hanover County Sheriff Ed McMahon confirmed that both Becker and the deputy were incorrect – but the deputy was never named and was not formally disciplined. Instead, he was “counseled,” according to Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Augst.
Becker’s demotion, no policy changes
According to Augst, McMahon instructed his staff to ensure that each deputy has been provided with information about the citizen’s right to record encounters with law enforcement officers.
The Wilmington Police Department, however, did not make any changes to its policies or training to ensure that officers were clear that the law allows the filming of law enforcement officers.
According to Spokeswoman Linda Rawley Thompson, Evangelous’ release was sent around to all officers as a reminder at the time of Becker’s demotion, but the department does not “believe any further efforts are necessary at this time.”
If Becker was to serve as an example, his sentence lasted only six months. After that, according to the Police Department, Becker was reinstated.
Pulling rank: Civil Service Commission reinstates Becker
According to the Wilmington Police Department, Becker was reinstated to his sergeant rank on Sept. 31, 2017, three months before he left the department.
Rawley Thompson declined to comment on Becker’s reinstatement, which followed a hearing at the city’s Civil Service Commission.
The Commission, which has authority over all law enforcement officers – except meter readers and the police chief – and, according to its charter, has the final say in overturning demotions or dismissals initiated by the Police Chief.
According to Assistant City Attorney Meredith Everhart, there is no other public information available about the commission or its hearings. Everhart and Wilmington City Clerk Penelope Spicer-Sidbury, who takes minutes for commission hearings, both declined to answer questions about the commission, the scope or extent of its authority or the substance of its meetings.
Everhart declined to give layman’s explanation of the commission, and referred only to its establishing documents.
However, based on the nature of the commission it seems the decision to reinstate Becker did not come from Evangelous or the Police Department. According to its charter, the commission hears appeals, but does not launch investigations or make unsolicited changes to rank, pay, or employment status.
Becker’s reinstatement appears to be the result of his appeal to the commission, which by all appearances outranks Evangelous. According to the commission’s charter, a demoted or dismissed employee has 10 working days to file an appeal, and the commission then has 60 days to hear that appeal.
Separation — with backdated pay?
Personnel record laws make it difficult to know how and why Becker was reinstated. They make it equally hard to know why he left the force.
Rawley Thompson declined to comment on Becker’s “separation” from the force on Jan. 31, 2018.
According to city emails, Becker appeared on a list of unsigned time cards dating back to Dec. 2017.
In January, Becker was moved from the “No Employee Approval” list to the “No Supervisor Approval” list – suggesting that Becker’s supervisor would not sign off on his time card. By mid-January, Becker’s name appeared on a Personnel Meeting appointment for Evangelous and Deputy Chief James Varrone.
Two weeks later, Becker was “separated.”
What’s odd is that, although Rawley Thompson said Becker was reinstated to sergeant in September, an EAR — employee action request — to reinstate him was filed on Jan. 30, 2018, three months later.
The EAR was filed by Jeanne Sexton and ultimately approved by City Manager Sterling Cheatham. The request retroactively reinstated Becker’s rank to sergeant and backdated an accompanying raise to late September.
The day after the city approved Becker’s backdated promotion and raise, he was off the force.
Rawley Thompson said she could not comment on the EAR or how it might affect Becker’s severance. She said she was unable to release information on whether or not Becker was receiving pension, healthcare or other benefits from the city or department following his separation.