A Northern Kentucky police department has come under attack from a pair of lawsuits that could cost it millions of dollars. If proven true, the cases — which include charges of ignoring sexual abuse claims, retaliation against a whistleblower and planted evidence — paint an unflattering picture of the Ludlow Police Department.
In a span of three months, the nine-officer department headed by a longtime police veteran, Chief A. Wayne Turner (pictured), has come under scrutiny following the dismissal of charges against a robbery suspect who'd already served seven months in jail as well as departmental in-fighting that led to the firing of one of its officers.
The department's legal battles began in September, when Ludlow resident James Dawson filed suit in federal court, claiming that fingerprints used to convict him in a 2009 robbery case were improperly handled. According to the complaint, a Ludlow police officer took fingerprints retrieved from a soda can at Dawson's home and represented them as evidence taken from the scene of the robbery.
Dawson, who had a criminal record, was taken into custody in December 2009 to await trial. In April, he was released when his bond was lowered. Two months later, the charges were dropped when the fingerprint switch was discovered. The fingerprints were the only evidence against his client, Dawson's attorney says.
Noting that the details of the altered fingerprints emerged “like a John Grisham novel,” attorney Ned Pillersdorf says the dismissal of charges was a tacit admission of the department's wrongdoing.
“You just don't see a prosecutor walk into a courtroom and have the judge drop first-degree robbery charges,” Pillersdorf says. “It doesn't happen, unless he came to the same conclusion that we did. (Police) either acted with reckless disregard of my client's rights or perpetrated a fraud on the court. I think the Ludlow Police Department had a low opinion of my client, they wanted to solve the case, so they connected dots that weren't there.”
The lawsuit, pending in federal court in Covington, seeks $12 million in damages.
Turner, who became chief of the department in 2007 after 20 years with Fort Thomas Police, declined to comment, referring questions to city attorney Tom Miller.
That lawsuit, filed in Kenton County Circuit Court under the state Whistleblower Act laws, alleges the department retaliated against Giberson for pressing an investigation of a 20-year-old sexual abuse case involving a former department chief. It seeks his reinstatement as well as punitive damages.
Laura Landenwich, Giberson's attorney, says that the case began in 2009 when the officer and Ludlow Asst. Chief Benny Johnson were approached by a woman while on patrol. She claimed she'd been abused by the former chief.
“After she left, Johnson told my client that he would investigate the woman's claims,” Landenwich says. “A year later, Giberson found out nothing had been done. Nobody had followed up with the woman, there was no investigation. He felt an obligation to report it.”
After consulting with Commonwealth Attorney Rob Sanders, Giberson filed a report detailing the abuse claims to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. Soon after, Turner reprimanded him, Landenwich says, and placed him on administrative leave pending a mental health exam.
When doctors cleared Giberson to return to duty, Turner suspended him again, citing a track record of reprimands in his record, and moved for his termination. Ludlow City Council unanimously voted to fire Giberson in October.
“Their 'litany of charges' were ridiculous,” Landenwich adds.
The charges included insubordination but also lesser transgressions including 30 minutes of unauthorized overtime, responding to a call in a neighboring city with which Ludlow has a cooperative service agreement and charging a teenager with alcohol intoxication rather than DUI. Giberson couldn't pursue the DUI charge, Landenwich notes, because he never saw the teen drive.
“If you look at the timeline between the time he filed the paperwork for the sexual abuse case and his termination, the department's intention is clear,” Landenwich says. “It was weeks, maybe less. Maybe 10 days. They were retaliating against him for pursuing that investigation.”
While Giberson has been fighting to regain his spot in the department, the abuse case has been forwarded to Kentucky State Police. Its investigation has since been shelved for a lack of evidence and unwillingness of the victim to testify, KSP officials say.
Meanwhile, the city is fighting Giberson's claim of more than 400 hours of unpaid vacation time he accrued as well as his unemployment claim. City attorneys also have filed for the lawsuit's dismissal, arguing Kentucky's whistleblower statute doesn't apply to cities the size of Ludlow.
“It's unlikely they'll prevail,” Landenwich says. “The purpose of the law is to give employees incentive to report corruption. Their argument isn't supported by case law. It's not supported by common sense.”
On the heels of the lawsuit filings, the department was an issue in November's election. A block of three outsiders sought City Council seats, with the department's shortcomings as motivation. Two, Joshua Boone and Covington-based attorney Tom Amann, won.
According to Amann, they want to set up a task force to examine the department. Their issue, he adds, is with the department's responsiveness, not its integrity.
“We went door-to-door talking to people, and they expressed concern that the department wasn't responsive,” Amann says. “That's the only concern we have with the department.”
The department has support from other city leaders, as well.
Newly elected Mayor Ken Wynn, who takes office in January after six years on City Council, declined to comment on the pending cases but added his support for Turner and the city's police.
“I do support our department, and I think Chief Turner does a good job,” Wynn says. “I stand by them, and I stand by Chief Turner.”