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Controversies handcuff tiny Macomb town’s police

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
Memphis is a town of 1,200 in Macomb and St. Clair counties with an unfortunate recent track record for its police chiefs.

Memphis— When a mural on the Memphis Police Department building was defaced in 2013, workers painted it over.

The city wishes it could whitewash troubles inside the building just as easily.

Two recent Memphis police chiefs have been linked to threats, investigations, missing guns, lawsuits and obstruction-of-justice allegations.

“Good gravy, what’s next?” asked resident Wayne Sutter. “This is supposed to be a small town.”

After a chief was fired in 2014 and another demoted last year, the city thought it had turned the corner with the hiring of Kevin Sommers in August. The longtime Warren police officer impressed residents and city leaders as friendly and energetic.

Kevin Sommers

“He seemed like he would fit like a glove,” said Jim Gavin, a local winery owner. “He was just what we needed.”

But Sommers, 56, died Jan. 1 of a heart attack during emergency surgery for digestive problems.

For the third time in 18 months, Memphis is looking for a police chief.

“We’re in a tough spot, that’s for sure,” said Mayor Eric Schneider.

The new chief will inherit a department with one full-time and seven part-time officers.

The small force goes with the small town, which is one square mile with 1,200 residents.

Located in Macomb and St. Clair counties, Memphis’ welcome signs bill it as “a pleasant place to live.”

And things were pleasant, indeed, when Jessica Beels became police chief in 2011.

Just 26, she was the youngest chief in Michigan.

She also may have been the only one with a pink receptionist desk and pink office wall.

By 2014, however, the mood had turned less festive.

City officials declined to say what went wrong, but a police complaint filed that year by then-Mayor Dan Weaver shed some light on the issue.

Weaver filed the report after he was allegedly threatened by Beels’ husband and brother-in-law, according to the complaint.

Jessica Beels

Weaver told a Macomb County sheriff’s investigator the trouble began in January 2014 when he began questioning Beels’ frequent forays outside the city.

For one trip, Beels wrote on a time slip she attended training at the St. Clair County Prosecutor’s Office in 2014, but no such training was scheduled or occurred, Weaver said in the report.

Another time, Beels told Weaver she attended an Okemos meeting of the Michigan Association of Police Chiefs in June 2014, but the association told the city there was no meeting, according to the complaint.

There were six such occurrences, said city officials.

Earlier this month, Beels said she sometimes mixed up the dates of events but shouldn’t have been fired for it.

“I dedicated eight years to the city,” said Beels, who had been a part-time officer before becoming chief. “I wasn’t there to destroy it. It was my life for eight years.”

Crash a tipping point

The final blow against Beels may have occurred when she got into an accident while on duty in Armada Township in June 2014.

She ran through a stop sign and struck a FedEx truck, knocking it into a ditch, according to a traffic report. Nobody was seriously injured. The police cruiser, three months old, was totaled.

The Michigan State Police said Beels was at fault but didn’t issue a ticket.

That’s a common practice, said Lt. Mike Shaw, an MSP spokesman. When police are involved in accidents while on duty, the MSP allows the individual police department to handle discipline, he said.

Weaver, who had pushed for Beels’ hiring three years earlier, talked with the Memphis City Council to see what to do about the chief, according to the 2014 police complaint.

Meeting with Beels on July 17, he told her a majority of the council wanted to fire her but gave her a chance to resign first.

Right after the meeting, Weaver got a call from Beels’ brother-in-law, Kevin Koveck.

“I’m an ex-Marine,” Koveck told Weaver, according to the complaint. “You better back off or you’ll be sorry.”

The next day, Weaver got a call from Beels’ husband, Jim Koveck, a Michigan State Police trooper.

Jim Koveck screamed at Weaver, saying he would file criminal charges against him, according to the complaint. He accused Weaver of having an extramarital affair and threatened to drag the mayor’s name through the mud if he didn’t resign.

The council voted 4-3 to fire Beels on July 21.

Jim Koveck, who declined comment, told the Macomb sheriff’s investigator he hadn’t threatened Weaver.

Kevin Koveck said he didn’t make any threats either. He said he couldn’t remember what he said because it was so long ago.

“I’m just a Cubmaster in Memphis,” he said earlier this month. “Look, Mr. Weaver has left the state. God bless him. I hope his wildest dreams come true.”

Weaver, who moved to Massachusetts last year for family reasons, attributed the problem with Beels and other chiefs to low pay.

He said the city’s small tax base doesn’t allow the council to hire better-qualified people. Beels made $37,000 a year.

“We’re an Andy and Barney town,” he said. “You get what you pay for.”

Successor created buzz

When Scott Sheets replaced Beels as chief in July 2014, he wanted officers to become so well-known around town that residents knew them by name.

He quickly accomplished the goal — but not in the way he intended.

The former Detroit police officer, who was 35 when he became chief, was brimming with ideas, said council members. One of the first was starting a police auxiliary.

Scott Sheets

The eight reserves, who weren’t paid, joined the part-time officers to give the cash-strapped city police coverage nearly 24 hours a day.

But some residents were concerned about the suddenly visible police. The reserves wore uniforms and drove police cruisers, and several carried guns.

The City Council had supported the reserves but decided they were growing too quickly. The council suspended the program early in 2015.

“We thought it was getting a little out of hand,” said Councilman Larry Wilson.

One day after the Feb. 3 vote, Sheets filed a city police report claiming a councilman and two city staffers had illegally reviewed confidential information in the reserves’ personnel files.

The files allegedly contained information from the state Law Enforcement Information Network, a computerized database of people’s criminal records open only to the police, according to the report.

During a Memphis police committee meeting Jan. 29, Councilman Frank Davis, who is the committee head, said he was concerned about “blemishes” on the records of two reserves, said the report.

Two of the reserves have misdemeanors for assault and drunken driving, said city officials.

But council members said earlier this month they didn’t get the criminal info from LEIN but from the reserves’ job applications, which asked if they were ever charged with a crime.

Davis said the personnel files didn’t have LEIN reports and, if they had, it would have been Sheets’ fault for putting them there in the first place.

“I don’t know where he’s even coming up with that,” Davis said about Sheets’ accusation.

Sheets brought his complaint to the Michigan State Police and a Macomb County prosecutor, but a State Police spokesman said the agencies declined to pursue charges.

Sheets declined comment.

Police retaliation

The city council disbanded the reserves in May and, later that month, two businesses whose owners were outspoken critics of the reserves received blight citations from the police.

The owners of Boomer’s Tavern and Sage Creek Winery, which were undergoing renovations at the time, said Sheets was retaliating against them for their opposition.

City officials agreed, rescinding the citations.

“It was too obvious,” said Councilwoman Robbie Zukas. “They complained and got written up the next day.”

Jim Gavin, owner of Sage Creek Winery, said Sheets was acting childish.

In June, less than a year after hiring him, the council voted 6-0 to demote Sheets from chief to part-time officer.

From left, Clerk Donna Janssens, mayor Eric Schneider, city council members Kurt Marter and Larry Wilson discuss items during A city council meeting in Memphis.

Two months later, he filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the city, saying he was demoted for investigating the LEIN issue.

The lawsuit charges that the council had threatened a councilman if he didn’t vote to demote Sheets.

The councilman, Jason Parker, told Sheets the council would expose the fact that Parker drives on a suspended license, according to the lawsuit.

Parker didn’t attend the meeting where Sheets was demoted.

Contacted by a reporter last week, Parker declined to discuss his conversation with Sheets but said it was supposed to remain private. He said he was angry at Sheets for publicizing it.

“It’s all about him. He doesn’t care about anybody else’s life,” said Parker. “When you go behind my back and betray me, I lost all respect for him.”

Missing weapons

Memphis soon learned it had another problem with the police department.

The city had asked the Macomb Sheriff’s Office to oversee the department while it looked for a new chief last year.

It also asked the sheriff to review police operations and procedures.

In August, the Macomb sheriff’s office released a report that said the department was missing a 12-gauge shotgun, two handguns and three police radios.

What’s more, the evidence room had 141 items unaccounted for, including another 12-gauge shotgun, two additional pistols, four rifles and a 1988 Ford Mustang.

Because of sloppy record-keeping, there was no way to tell if the evidence was stolen, destroyed or returned to the owners, according to the 118-page report.

No charges were filed in response to the report.

“There are many concerns as it relates to missing firearms,” wrote Macomb Sheriff Anthony Wickersham. “Upon hiring a new chief, this must be a top priority.”

Some of the missing items go back decades, said the report.

The report also criticized the department for lax security, saying the keys to the evidence room were easily accessible.

Surprise death

Sommers stepped into this muddled scenario in August.

No sooner had he started than he realized he wasn’t licensed.

His police certification had expired after his retirement from Warren in 2011.

So Memphis’ only full-time officer couldn’t arrest anyone or even write a parking ticket.

Here we go again, fretted some residents.

But Sommers eventually got recertified, instituted new procedures for the handling of equipment and evidence, and began hosting “Coffee with the Chief” meetings at Donut Girls.

Friendly and energetic, he was drawing compliments from residents and city leaders.

“He seemed like he would fit like a glove,” said Gavin. “He was just what we needed.”

But, four months after starting the job, Sommers died on Jan. 1.

And Memphis finds itself in the market, once again, for someone to lead the star-crossed Police Department.