Missouri law, Section 106.273 RSMo., provides a specific procedure for the removal of a City’s chief law enforcement officer upon limited authorized grounds. The statute prohibits removal of a police chief without existence of certain types of “just cause,” such as (but not limited to) felony conviction, insubordination, or alcohol or substance abuse rendering the chief unable to perform his or her duties. When just cause exists, the city is required to send the chief written notice within a certain number of days before a meeting at which removal will be considered. The written notice must contain the charges of “just cause,” a statement of facts explaining the “just cause,” and the date, time, and location of the meeting at which the chief’s removal will be considered. The chief must be given an opportunity to be heard before the governing body, and the hearing must include any witnesses, evidence, and counsel of the chief’s choosing. The police chief cannot be removed without a two-thirds majority vote by the governing body.
Failure to follow the required steps for removing a police chief can prove to be expensive and time-consuming. This is aptly illustrated by a recent $315,000 jury verdict against a Missouri city that was found to have violated the due process rights of its police chief and failed to follow the required procedure. The four-year (and still ongoing) saga of this removal-gone-wrong has been chronicled in the courts and the press (see, e.g. ,KOMU Feb. 16, 2019, Columbia Daily Tribune Feb. 20, 2019, KOMU Aug. 2, 2021). It began in 2017 when the police chief was removed by the City after a hearing at which the City presented no evidence. The chief alleged that he was removed without just cause and instead because he refused to run an unlawful criminal background check requested by City officials and because he reported allegations of domestic violence committed by close friends of a City alderman. The police chief sued the City in 2017 requesting damages and reinstatement as chief of police, among other relief. In 2019 the Court held that the City violated the chief’s due process rights and was improperly removed, and ordered the chief reinstated. When the City attempted to appeal that judgment, the Court of Appeals dismissed the City’s appeal and remanded it to the trial court for conclusion of the remaining claims in the litigation. Just this July, a jury returned the $315,000 damages verdict against the City. Now, the City faces the prospect of paying the damages award or again seeking relief in the appellate court. This case serves as a reminder that the removal of a police chief must be approached with care, caution, and consultation with the applicable law.