Tuesday, August 19, 2008

TOP STORY > >Officers quit after wreck

Leader staff writer

One police officer has left the Beebe Police Department and another has turned in his resignation in the wake of a controversy over whether Alderman Janice Petray received special treatment following a rear-end collision in July because she was dating one of the officers.

Police Chief Wayne Ballew said this week that Steve Benton left the department last Thursday. Tony Bryant also resigned effective Aug. 23. Benton and Bryant were hired from the Lonoke County Sheriff’s Department in June 2007 as part of a makeover of the Beebe Police Department in which patrol officers, a dispatcher and finally a police chief lost their jobs.

The revamped department was touted as experienced and responsible, a group of officers dedicated to protecting and serving the city’s residents. Ballew said he regrets that the recent controversy could diminish the good reputation he has tried to build for his department over the past year.

Petray, who has served almost six years on the council and is planning to run for a fourth term, was not cited July 23 after she rear-ended Mallory Davis at the traffic light at Dewitt Henry and Pecan.

Although Petray, who was dating Benton, said she had not been drinking and might have appeared dazed because of the airbag, witnesses said she appeared to be under the influence of alcohol.

Mayor Mike Robertson said he learned about the incident more than a week after it happened and instructed Ballew to investigate it thoroughly. Robertson said he didn’t want it brushed aside.

Petray was driving a red, convertible, 2004 Honda S20 when she struck the silver 2007 Toyota Tundra pickup driven by Davis of Beebe. Davis’ pickup traveled 145 feet after the impact.

Michael Wolford, a part time patrol officer was the first on the scene of the wreck.

Wolford did not give Petray a ticket for the wreck, but he wrote in a statement the next day after Ballew saw discrepancies in the accident report, that Petray appeared to be drinking.

“I felt during my investigation of the accident that I was unable to do my job due to my superiors (Cpl. Tony Bryant and Sgt. Steve Benton) convincing me that Ms. Petray was fine and that she was sitting still at the stop light when I knew she wasn’t,” Wolford wrote in his statement.

“I feel that I was unable to do my job due to the circumstances. I was persuaded to make decisions I normally would not if I was by myself.

“My investigation revealed that Ms. Petray had struck the back of Ms. Davis’s vehicle. Ms. Davis had been sitting at the red light. The light turned green and she proceeded to go through the light when Ms. Petray strikes her in the rear. I believe that the accident was caused due to Ms. Petray being under the influence of a controlled substance.”

One of the new vacancies will be filled by Kevin McCoy, a Searcy police officer who lives outside of Beebe and wanted to work closer to home. The other position has not been filled.

Petray said after the incident became an issue for the department that she asked before she started dating Benton if it would cause problems and assured the city’s other elected officials that if they didn’t want her to date Benton, she wouldn’t.

She said Monday that the mayor told her Friday there were openings in the police department and that she knew because of her personal relationship with Benton that he had resigned. But she said she had no comment about the resignation.

Ballew said he does not intend to set a policy against his employees dating council members.

“I think it will eventually cause controversy,” he said. “But can to tell someone who they can date and can not date? I don’t think so.”