At the request of the local police union, the Pensacola City Council will consider this month if it should conduct an investigation of Mayor Ashton Hayward. Claiming that the mayor “misused the power of his office to intimidate” officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 71, has asked the council to look into an alleged Oct. 19 Gallery Night incident it characterizes as “shocking and inexcusable.”
The union has asked that council use its investigative and subpoena powers granted by the city charter to address concerns stemming from an encounter with Hayward as police were attempting to reopen the streets to vehicular traffic during the downtown event. Expressing a desire to “hear both sides of the story,” council will decide during its Nov. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting if it will conduct an investigation.
“I assume once they find the facts out they will call for an official investigation,” FOP District One Director Robert Bell said after the union made its request.
Several rows worth of police union members attended a late October city council meeting to voice their concerns. Bell read a letter to council members that relayed Gallery Night accounts from two unidentified officers, one who encountered the mayor and one that was approached by John Peacock, who Hayward recently appointed to the Downtown Improvement Board.
“The officer said that Mayor Hayward appeared to be disheveled, not as neat and proper as he has seen him in the past,” Bell read from the letter. “The officer said that Mayor Hayward asked him, ‘Who’s in charge of this?’ Mayor Hayward was using a highly agitated voice, sometimes to the point of almost yelling.”
According to the FOP, Hayward and Peacock took issue with the officers reopening the streets at 9 p.m. On previous occasions, the streets stayed closed until midnight, but were reopening earlier Oct. 19 due to funding issues. Hayward and Peacock were also apparently upset about the tactics—sirens, lights and loudspeakers—officers were using to move crowds off the street. The unnamed officers allege that Peacock compared the police to “terrorists,” and that Hayward compared the scene to “Beirut.”
“Mayor Hayward then ordered the officer to get on his police radio and tell the supervisor to relax and to tell everyone else to relax as well, because this is not ‘Beirut,’” the letter reads. “The officer told Mayor Hayward that he was relaxed. Mayor Hayward then said, ‘Get on that mic and tell him to relax. You want me to do it?’”
Bell said he felt the incident described in the FOP letter was indicative of a larger trend, and said the “lack of respect” would continue if they didn’t call attention to the matter. The local FOP president, Erik Goss, had also spoken about the issue of respect earlier in the council meeting.
“It’s just a pattern of disrespect we’ve felt for a while,” he told the council. “It’s just kind of boiling over.”
When the FOP addressed its concerns with city council, members repeatedly stressed that they “believe” and “trust” the officers—Councilman P.C. Wu apologized to them—but that they also needed to hear from the mayor before considering an investigation.
“You cannot make judgment until you hear from both sides of the story,” said Councilman John Jerralds.
The council voted 8-1 to gather pertinent information—to include a statement from Hayward—and then consider an investigation Nov. 13. The lone dissenting vote was cast by Councilman Brian Spencer, who said he was sure the mayor would respond to the FOP’s concerns and also framed the issue as highlighting logistical questions surrounding the operation of Gallery Night—“it’s a collision, it’s a juxtaposition of two different uses of the same swath of pavement.”
Following the union’s appearance before council, Peacock disputed the version of events relayed in the officers’ accounts. He said he hadn’t called the police “terrorists,” but rather compared the scene on Palafox Street to the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
Peacock also said that he and the mayor were under the impression that the streets were to remain closed until midnight, and that “sometimes you have to get involved to stop something that’s getting out of control.”
The new appointee to the DIB, which oversees Gallery Night, said that he had learned in an email from the city’s Neighborhood Services Department that the funds needed to keep the streets closed until midnight—about $3,000 to pay for off-duty officers and insurance—had been obtained from World of Beer. Peacock later found out that was not the case.
Sandra Ward, interim executive director of the DIB, said that the decision to reopen the streets at 9 p.m. was made when no businesses stepped up to foot the extended-hours bill. She said World of Beer did make a late offer, but it was too late.
“They said, ‘Hey, we’ll do it,’ but they didn’t have time to get all the details worked out for Gallery Night,” Ward said.
City Spokesman Derek Cosson confirmed that the mayor had been unaware of the time change—“we had a little breakdown of communication”—and also said that Hayward would not be issuing a statement regarding the matter and that the issue would most likely be handled internally.
“This is an issue that any other organization would handle internally,” Cosson said. “I think that’s the way the mayor would like to handle this.”
Councilman Larry Johnson said he would “like to hear the mayor’s side of the story.” Insofar as opening an investigation, which would entail subpoenas and under-oath testimony, the councilman said the board would be heading into “uncharted territory, uncharted waters, if you will.”
“What happens if we find some kind of issue? I would have to consult with our attorney,” Johnson said. “Where we go from here, I’m just not sure.”
Earlier this year, the FOP took a “no confidence” vote in Hayward’s chief of staff, John Asmar. The administration issued a statement at the time painting the move as related to the city’s ongoing contract negotiations with the police union.
After relaying the Gallery Night account to council, Bell said that the accusations of intimidation were not related to the negotiations.
“No, this isn’t retaliation,” he said, noting that the city had declared an impasse. “Impasse means they have taken negotiations out of our hands.”
Johnson said he had considered if the negotiations were at the root of this most recent concern from the FOP. He said he thought there might be “a little sprinkle, a hint” of overlap, but that the friction between the mayor’s office and the police predated the contract issue.
“I think it’s a real easy spin to put on this, to say, ‘This is all about union negotiations,’” Johnson said. “But I’m not buying it.”