October 26, 2021

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Athens, Tennessee, police chief fired amid ongoing city council probe into problems between them

Oct. 11—The police chief in Athens, Tennessee, was dismissed Friday amid an ongoing city council special session investigating his complaints about the city manager and whether the manager was retaliating against him.

Athens officials announced Cliff Couch’s firing in a news release on Monday. Police Lt. Fred Schultz has been appointed interim police chief, according to the release.

“Couch was provided an opportunity to resign, but as of 9 a.m. Monday, Oct. 11, 2021, he did not exercise that opportunity,” city Manager C. Seth Sumner said in the release.

Sumner gave no other reason in the release for Couch’s termination.

Couch, a native of Florida and a previous chief in both Great Bend and Goodland, Kansas, was hired in Athens in September 2017 after a nationwide search.

In the city’s news release, Sumner voiced his support of the police department.

“Now, more than ever, our officers need stability and leadership in support of their critical role of protecting our community,” Sumner said in the release. “This change in leadership will afford our officers and the department a more stable and supporting environment,” Sumner said.

In an interview Monday, Couch said late last year he reported some issues to the district attorney about Sumner, and since February of this year had complained to the city council “retaliation resulting from that and concerns I had.”

An Aug. 10 council meeting held to hear Couch’s concerns was cut short, he said. The meeting was supposed to resume on Oct 18. “But instead I was called in and terminated. I think that speaks for itself.”

Couch said he was unsure what his next step will be.

“I suspect that most of the council probably didn’t know that was going to happen and I’d like to give them a chance to see what they’re going to do,” Couch said.

The dispute between Sumner and now-former police chief Couch stems from the disappearance and reappearance of two city-owned Nest surveillance cameras in November 2020.

The cameras became the subject of a called council meeting to look into the matter and how it became an issue between Sumner and Couch.

Nothing was resolved in the six-hour meeting in August.

District Attorney Steve Crump in August said he found no crime to investigate, calling it an internal issue for Athens City Hall. City council members had discussed the issue in two previous secret meetings before the Aug. 10 public forum and the matter has rattled the community for months.

On Aug. 10, council members heard from Sumner, Couch and others involved in the missing cameras and their return.

According to the police chief’s report to the DA, the cameras were noticed missing in November 2020 and then turned up in a supply closet and an officer’s laptop case in December and January respectively, with no explanation. One detective remembered the city manager taking possession of the cameras at an unspecified earlier time.

“There is no evidence those cameras were ever missing,” Sumner told the council in August. “Those cameras are not missing. This is a property loss report, at best, that turned into something different quite quickly.”

Following Sumner’s turn with the council, Couch said he’d pursued the issue because it appeared something happened to them without his knowledge, that it was a mystery of missing city property.

He said he was correct to contact the district attorney about the matter.

During the August meeting, Couch said theft by Sumner “was never my concern” but that “there’s unanswered questions about this.”

There was no word on plans for reconvening the adjourned August meeting that had been set for Oct. 18.

Couch praised the department and his former colleagues.

“The Athens Police Department is a fine department and the people of Athens are just awesome and if this is really the end, it’s been a pleasure working with the officers and a pleasure serving the citizens of Athens,” he said Monday. “It’s a great community.”

Contact Ben Benton at [email protected] or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton.

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