Church Hill, Mount Carmel Police Departments, undercover FCC agents embroiled in misuse of police radios brouhaha

Jeff Bobo • Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

MOUNT CARMEL — Arrest warrants have been written but not yet served against two investigators with the Federal Communications Commission who were in Church Hill in June on an undercover mission.

The FCC agents were undercover in Church Hill on June 10 investigating complaints made by the Mount Carmel Police Department that someone was continually “keying over” radio transmission made between MCPD Officer Ken Lunsford and Hawkins County Central Dispatch.

The FCC agents decided on a cover story that they were part of a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Meth Task Force investigation. Now they might be charged with impersonating police officers by the Church Hill Police Department.

The keying over problem had been ongoing for several months prior to the arrival of the FCC agents.

Mount Carmel Police Chief Jeff Jackson said his and other Hawkins County law enforcement agencies didn’t have the equipment or the expertise to track down the culprit, although he suspected it was a police officer from another department in the county.

“The problem got so bad we were actually considering switching to Kingsport’s 911 system for our dispatching,” Jackson said. “I’m talking about entire shifts when he (Lunsford) couldn’t get any transmissions through to Central (Dispatch). He’d make a traffic stop and couldn’t call in to tell them where he was, the vehicle description or the license plate because someone was keying over him.

“After talking to the heads of the other law enforcement agencies in the county, I contacted the FCC as a last resort. It was a serious safety issue, and I wasn’t going to wait around until one of my officers got killed. I wanted this to stop, and I wanted to know who was responsible.”

Mount Carmel police contacted the FCC and requested an investigation. But the FCC’s undercover operation was halted after the investigators were questioned by Church Hill police twice.

According to a Church Hill Police Department report completed this past Friday, on June 10 about 11 p.m. Officer Danny Depew stopped an SUV with Alabama license plates after it pulled onto Main Boulevard from a parking lot without its headlights on. According to the report, the two male occupants of the SUV stated they were “state meth task force agents” although they didn’t have credentials.

Mount Carmel Fire Chief and Police Officer Chris Jones, who actually is a member of the meth task force, subsequently arrived at the scene to vouch for them.

Depew stated in the report he later discussed the traffic stop with fellow Officer Chip Whitaker and discussed the possibility that the men in the SUV were impersonating officers.

Depew and Whitaker then stopped the SUV in the Food City parking lot shortly after midnight and spoke to the undercover FCC investigators again.

Again they identified themselves as meth task force agents, and again Jones arrived on the scene to vouch for their identity. The FCC agents were released, but the incident was later turned over to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

On Friday, Church Hill police received confirmation that the two males in the SUV were not meth task force agents or any other type of local, state or federal law enforcement officers.

“Instead we learned that (the two men) are civilian FCC employees who were in the area working on a radio complaint,” Depew stated in the report issued Friday. “Whitaker and I have prepared warrants charging (both men) with counts of impersonating police officers.”

Church Hill Police Chief Mark Johnson told the Times-News Wednesday those arrest warrants have not yet been served and won’t be served without approval of the attorney general. That approval may never come, but regardless Johnson said he believes the FCC investigation could have been handled better.

Johnson said he welcomes an FCC investigation, and if there is proof that one of his officers is “keying over” other officers he will be the first to take disciplinary action.

“I talked to the FCC district supervisor, and he said he has no evidence of any officer in Hawkins County — especially a Church Hill officer — doing anything inappropriate over the radio,” Johnson told the Times-News Wednesday. “I’ve told him that if and when he develops evidence to let me know and I’ll be the first one to suspend the officer.”

Johnson added that although the FCC agents have not yet been charged, they are still under investigation.

“A novel idea would have been to tell the truth — ‘Yeah we’re FCC employees and we’re investigating radio complaints,’” Johnson said. “Or, at the very least there’s hundreds of lies they could have told my officers. They happened to pick the one lie that there’s a crime in the books against.

“They could have said, ‘We’re grocery store inspectors. We’re gasoline inspectors.’ They could have named any number of lies that would not be criminal.”

Third Judicial District Attorney General Berkeley Bell told the Times-News Wednesday he’s leaving the decision whether or not to charge the FCC investigators to Church Hill, but he advises against it.

“When I was made aware that Church Hill was contemplating bringing charges against FCC agents who were acting in an undercover capacity in Church Hill, I called Chief Mark Johnson and indicated to him that I did not feel that charges against those individuals under these circumstances would be in the best interest of the city of Church Hill or the state of Tennessee,” Bell said. “I indicated to him that I was not trying to interfere with his prerogative of bringing charges, but I was just stating my feeling on the matter at the time.”

As for the “keying over” situation that brought the FCC to Church Hill, Bell said, “I’m generally aware of those allegations. I asked the TBI to look into it. I have not seen their complete report yet, so I would rather not comment on that at this time.”

Jackson said the keying over problem with his officer “miraculously ended” after the incident with FCC investigators in Church Hill on June 10.

The FCC is preparing a public statement regarding the Mount Carmel/Church Hill situation, but that statement had not been released as of Wednesday evening.

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