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Hearing held for former Jonesboro Police employee, Rachel Anderson

 Craighead County Courthouse in Jonesboro
Craighead County Courthouse in Jonesboro

Rachel Anderson, a former Jonesboro Police Department employee, had her hearing in court on Wednesday in a lawsuit against the City of Jonesboro, the mayor, and police chief. The case is not yet determined.

Anderson was the department’s Senior Video Analyst before being fired in November after speaking at a public bond hearing with the city council where she spoke out in opposition to a $17.5 million bond issue. One month later she filed a lawsuit against the city.

Anderson alleges defamation, abuse of process, and violations of her state constitutional rights. Anderson had worked for the department for five years.

The hearing was in the hands of a retired Forrest City Judge, Bentley Story, after local district judges recused themselves.

The hearing was scheduled to last for two hours, but it instead lasted for five. Four witnesses were called to the stand including Anderson, Tracey Snell who is Anderson’s aunt, Mayor Harold Copenhaver and Chief of Police Rick Elliot

Anderson was represented by Lawyers, Lucien Gillham and Luther Stutter. The City, Copenhaver, Elliot and other city officials were represented by Chris Stevens and Assistant City Attorney Heather Owens.

This hearing was to determine if a name-clearing hearing is to be ordered by the city. Copenhaver was the first to take the stand.

Mayor Harold Copenhaver’s Testimony:

Copenhaver told the court that after a meeting with Chief Elliot, the both agreed to terminate Anderson. Copenhaver said he felt that Anderson violated the oath she took when joining the JPD. He said that when she spoke out during the hearing he felt “caught off guard, betrayed, frustrated and disappointed.”

He also added that unemployment actions taken by the city are serious and he did not want to act quickly after the hearing. Ultimately, Copenhaver said that he felt like he could not trust her and that “his trust and faith was broken.” He also said he felt there was an open line of communication before she spoke at the hearing.

Police Chief Rick Elliot’s Testimony:

Second to the stand was Elliot, the Police Chief. Elliot has been Chief of Police of the JPD since 2014. Stutter, Anderson’s lawyer, was the one to question him. His first questions to the chief were “How does it feel to destroy a lady’s reputation?” and “Do you appreciate being called a lair?”

Stutter interrupted the police chief's answers which led to an objection for not letting the witness answer. The objection was sustained, and the Judge told Stutter not to talk over the defendants. Stutter said to the Judge, “I don’t want a sermon, I want answers.”

Elliot said he did not want to fire Anderson, but he felt like he had to because of the violation of trust. He also stated the mayor did not make him fire Anderson; it was a mutual conclusion. Elliot said that they felt that she was trying to derail the project. Which is new and in its infancy stage.

The chief also shared that he felt like Anderson’s opposition to the bond issue was more of a personal concern rather than a public concern.

Patrol Car Misuse & Freedom of Information Act:

Anderson said she felt that the city created a perception that she was a liar when, during her termination meeting with Elliot and Assistant Police Chief Lynn Waterworth, an issue concerning her alleged misuse of a patrol car was brought up.

In the meeting, Anderson was accused of misuse of a take-home vehicle. She was exonerated after an internal investigation. The suit accuses the city of defaming Anderson. In her termination letter Elliot said “several complaints on [Anderson’s] misuse of your take home unit. Those actions also constitute violations of JPD policy.”

The letter was requested in a FOIA request obtained by the media. Anderson and her team said they felt like that topic should have never been made public because she was exonerated from the charges and it was not made clear by the city that she was exonerated. This incident was a topic that was brought up multiple times in the courtroom.

Anderson’s attorney, Gillman, asked why it was mentioned in the termination letter since it was not a part of the reason for her termination. The mayor said he assumed the police chief had investigated the issue before it was in the letter.

Her lawyers argued that FOIA is valid for termination or suspension cases but not for exonerated issues like her’s.

Rachel Anderson’s Testimony:

Anderson was the third witness. She said she wasn't given the chance to object to the personal file regarding the misuse investigation.

Anderson said she felt like she has to defend herself to everyone. Most of Anderson’s time on the witness stand was her debunking claims made in a press release from the city concerning her dismissal. Anderson went point by point to explain why they were untrue to her.

For example, in the press release from the city it stated: “This is a person the mayor and I appointed for a specific role after we determined to create a real-time crime center. The mayor created a civilian role for her, upon her request. And I am deeply disappointed that she made misrepresentations and spoke inappropriately.”

Anderson said that it wasn't really the truth. She said she was initially hired part-time but was working 40 hours with no benefits. The chief told her she could have a full-time job if she went to the police academy. When she returned, the Chief wanted her to go out on the street despite allegedly telling her she would not have to and could have her job when she got back before she went.

After they tried to put her on the street she said no, and they ended up creating the civilian position for her. She said the way it was worded made her seem like she begged for the role.

The fourth person to take the stand was Rachel’s aunt, Tracey Snell, who talked about how people asked her about the internal investigation. Anderson’s lawyers used her testimony to further illustrate the damage to Anderson’s reputation.

Closing Statements and Final Thoughts

In the City’s closing statements, they argued that Anderson’s position was not the same as any other job because being a police officer is a different type of job. They said she did not follow the chain of command. Steven’s also stated no Arkansas state law says that she has to have a name-clearing hearing.

There were several news articles that were admitted as evidence of damage to Anderson’s reputation. The City’s side argued because she reached out and spoke to the media it wasn’t on the city. The City’s attorneys concluded their statement by saying that several articles submitted as evidence put her in a good light in their closing statements.

After the trial Gillham told KASU News: “I think first of all we established the material that got out there about Rachel was untrue.”

“The first part of this case is a First Amendment retaliation claim. City employees still have free speech rights. My client exercises those. You cannot have policies that forbid city employees from communicating about what is going on in the city.” Gillham said.

Gillham also added: “Frankly, we have situations where city employees are not allowed to speak out. Well, who is in the best position to speak about city government? City employees. If you can retaliate against those speaking out, we are not going to know what’s going on.”

Stevens, the City’s attorney, declined an interview with the media.

The judge said he would come to a decision as soon as possible.





Updated: January 25, 2024 at 1:23 PM CST
Changed the title; added the picture of the courthouse.
A 2019 graduate of Sheridan High School, Robinson graduated from A-State with a degree in multimedia journalism in December 2023. In January 2021, while working toward her degree, she was named sports editor for The Herald, A-State’s student-run newspaper.