By RACHAEL LONG
*Editor’s note: The investigation contained within this report contains obscenities, foul language and contains descriptions of sexual harassment.
**Editor’s note: Home Page obtained the town’s investigation after filing a Freedom of Information Act request Friday, April 27, 2019.
In September of 2017, the Town of Nolensville retained Thomas Whitworth of Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak and Stewart law firm to investigate the complaints made by former Nolensville police officer Cindy Strange regarding her employment with the town.
During the course of his investigation, Whitworth interviewed Cindy Strange, Mayor Jimmy Alexander, Town Administrator Ken McLawhon, Vice Mayor Jason Patrick, and several current or former members from the Nolensville Police Department including: former Chief of Police Troy Huffines, Bryan Howell, David Hazlett, Kent Jacobs, Jeremy Richardson, Kyle Billingsley, Cody Etheridge and Vivianne Conn.
In his report, Whitworth mentions he had also reviewed Strange’s written complaints, the Town’s personnel rules and regulations, the police department’s organizational charts, Town Hall security cameras and Strange’s personnel files.
Whitworth’s investigation unequivocally concluded that Strange’s complaints of gender-based harassment or a hostile work environment were unsubstantiated and that town officials had not, in fact, failed to remedy a hostile work environment.
In her 20-page lawsuit, Strange’s attorney Cynthia Wilson writes, “the investigation was fundamentally flawed in several respects and relied upon unsubstantiated statements, verifiably false statements and information, and was guided or directed by Howell and the City Administrator, who were the very persons at the heart of the discriminatory and retaliatory actions directed toward the Plaintiff.”
According to Whitworth’s three-hour interview with Strange, Mayor Jimmy Alexander was responsible for the decision to promote Strange from Detective to Captain in July 2014, a position newly created within the department, and called her the departments “backbone.” The new position came with a pay raise and made Strange second in command to the Chief of Police, according to Whitworth’s investigation.
Strange served as Captain for nearly three years until the department was reorganized in June 2017, Whitworth’s investigation states. Though the reorganization did not affect Strange’s compensation, Whitworth states she considered the title change to be a demotion based on rank.
Most of those interviewed in this report admit that Strange’s title change from Captain to Detective was a drop in rank and authority, while Whitworth says the Town of Nolensville characterizes it as a “lateral transfer.”
Later in the report, Whitworth notes that Mayor Alexander and former Town Administrator Ken McLawhon were responsible for this reorganization of the police department.
In his legal conclusions, Whitworth finds that the reclassification of Strange’s position was, in fact, a demotion but says he did not find “any credible evidence that Strange’s reclassification was motivated by her gender or otherwise discriminatory.”
The investigation also states that Strange lodged complaints against Huffines, alleging that he engaged in gender-based discrimination and harassment, created a hostile work environment and defamed her character by removing her from the Captain position. Whitworth notes that when articulating her work environment with the Nolensville Police Department, she did not allege that Huffines made any gender-related or demeaning remarks.
Strange told Whitworth during the interview, according to the report, that she met with Mayor Alexander twice — once in February 2017 and again in May 2017. In those meetings, Strange claims the mayor told her that her job was not in jeopardy, acknowledged that “the town had to do something about[the] Department,” and that the position of Police Chief would be open at the start of the new fiscal year. At that time, Strange claims she expressed interest in the position.
In her lawsuit, Strange claims her subsequent application for the position of police chief was “never even acknowledged.”
During his interview with the Mayor, Whitworth states, “According to the Mayor, Strange did not allege that a hostile work environment existed within the Department” during those meetings.
Strange lodged complaints against Howell, as well, who then served as the Director of Public Works and a part-time police officer. Whitworth details vulgar comments that Strange alleges Howell said of her in the Public Works office at Town Hall. Strange told Whitworth she had not directly heard those comments.
Huffines reported that he had never observed Howell use the language Strange alleged in her complaints.
During his interview with Howell, Whitworth asked Howell about this allegation. He writes, “According to Howell, he has never had a cross word with Cindy Strange, and he had not heard anyone said anything rude or derogatory toward her.”
Strange also lodged complaints about former McLawhon and Vice Mayor Jason Patrick, alleging they had both been made aware of the environment in the Nolensville Police Department and “failed to remedy it.”
Whitworth writes that Strange stated Patrick received a copy of a report she conducted in relation to former officer Allen Rasheed — which resulted in a recommendation that Huffines undergo a harassment and hostile work environment training. Her recommendation was ignored.
This is the moment Strange’s lawsuit points to as the “origins” of the “harassing, discriminatory [and] retaliatory” actions to “force the Plaintiff’s resignation.”
In his legal conclusions, Whitworth states the following: “Because I do not find that Chief Huffines has engaged any unlawful gender-based discrimination or harassment or created a discriminatory hostile work environment, I also find that McLawhon and Patrick have not failed in their duties as Town Administrator and Alderman.”
Structure of the department
According to his interview with Mayor Alexander, Whitworth notes that the reorganization was intended to promote stability and put an end to “in-fighting” within the department as well as to dissuade the notion that Strange was the “heir-apparent” to the police chief position.
It was also intended, in part, to give Huffines an “opportunity to succeed” outside Strange’s alleged attempts to “undermine” Huffines’ authority, Whitworth writes.
When Whitworth talked with Huffines, he said he was “opposed to the [reorganizational] changes as he thought they would hurt morale and create even deeper divides.”
The stabbing of Hazlett
Before she was demoted to Detective, one of Strange’s job responsibilities was to supervise the patrol division. Whitworth states that Strange’s “failure to exit her patrol car during the stabbing of David Hazlett created concern within the patrol ranks.” He also writes that town leadership decided the patrol division needed to report to someone they could trust.
In her lawsuit, Strange addresses this incident, calling Howell’s claims that she did not exit her vehicle “verifiably false, malicious and unfounded.”
In his report, Whitworth details Patrick’s memory of this incident.
“Patrick recounted that Hazlett was in pursuit of a suspect and called for a backup. Strange responded to the scene, but remained in her car while the suspect was attempting to stab Hazlett with a knife. Bryan Howell also responded to the scene in his public works truck, bypassed Strange in her car, and helped apprehend the suspect. According to Patrick, Strange was Captain at the time, and she lost credibility and trust due to her inaction,” Whitworth writes.
Huffines told Whitworth that when he asked Strange what she had been doing during the incident, Strange reported she had been on the street collecting evidence.
Howell told Whitworth he remembers walking past Strange’s vehicle, where he says she opened the door to her vehicle to give him information on the suspect and then closed the door again. Howell says Strange remained in the vehicle until the suspect was subdued.
When Whitworth quested Hazlett about the incident wherein he was stabbed, Whitworth writes that Hazlett said Strange did not exit her vehicle until the suspect was subdued and said he was “fearful for his safety” if placed in harm’s way with Strange.
A ‘hostile work environment’
When asked whether he thought Huffines had created a hostile work environment for Strange, Patrick noted Huffines’ “is somewhat lacking in social skills, and he can come across as very direct and militaristic” but said he had not seen Huffines treat Strange more harshly than others.
In his report, Whitworth interviews Kent Jacobs, who, at the time, had been with the Nolensville Police Department since May 2013. Jacobs told Whitworth he believed Huffines had created a hostile work environment and stated that Chief Huffines is “abusive toward his employees, micromanages, and feeds off beating people down.”
Whitworth interviewed Jeremy Richardson, who was an employee of the Nolensville Police Department for approximately two months, according to the report. Richardson also felt like Huffines’ leadership created a hostile work environment, and Whitworth writes, “Richardson said Huffines threatens officers, which has caused other officers to leave the NPD,” and that “officers cannot go to Huffines with issues or complaints for fear that Huffines will retaliate against them.”
In his legal conclusions, Whitworth states the following: “Although Strange has used terms with legal significance (such as ‘hostile work environment’ and ‘harassment’), I do not find any evidence that Huffines has treated Strange unfairly or differently because of her gender or any other category protected by law.”
Read the full, 26-page investigative report below.