Rockwood officer named in $1.2M pepper-spray lawsuit resigns post

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By Hayes Hickman of the Knoxville News Sentinel

A former Rockwood police officer at the center of a $1.2 million federal lawsuit for pepper-spraying a 20-year-old college student submitted his resignation a day after the lawsuit was filed, according to records.

Officer Chris Kennedy claimed he was charged by Xavier Howard while responding to a report of a domestic argument between Howard and his girlfriend at an apartment complex shortly after midnight July 5, 2015.

The officer’s body camera video — obtained through a public records request by the News Sentinel — shows no such attack.

According to the lawsuit, filed last month in U.S. District Court, Howard was arrested and ultimately charged with underage consumption of alcohol after a judicial magistrate refused to approve a domestic assault charge because there was no evidence.

As a result of his arrest, the student lost his basketball scholarship at Roane State Community College and was forced to drop out, the lawsuit claims. Howard racked up more than $5,000 in bond and legal fees.

A review of the officer’s personnel file shows Kennedy, a part-time hire who had been with the department less than two years, submitted a letter of resignation July 6.

According to the letter, Kennedy accepted a full-time position with the Oliver Springs Police Department, beginning July 18. Oliver Springs Police Chief Kenneth Morgan did not return a call Wednesday to confirm whether Kennedy is still employed.

Attorney Troy Bowlin II filed the lawsuit on behalf of Howard against the Rockwood Police Department, Kennedy and police Sgt. Randy Keahy, who responded with Kennedy to the domestic call.

The civil-rights lawsuit seeks more than $1.2 million in damages, including the value of Howard’s lost scholarship and the job opportunities a college education would have afforded him — pegged at $731,000.

In a response filed by attorney Daniel Rader, Kennedy claims immunity, as he was acting in his official capacity.

The response claims Kennedy’s actions were appropriate given the circumstances and did not constitute excessive force.

“(Howard) was approaching him and/or was about to approach him with his hands outstretched and … the use of pepper spray did not constitute excessive force under the circumstances existing in this case,” the response states.

Kennedy’s personnel file — made available this week through an Aug. 8 public records request by the News Sentinel — includes a performance incident report dated July 10 that shows the officer was counseled about his actions by Police Chief Danny Wright and Deputy Chief Bill Stinnett. The file does not include any documented disciplinary action during Kennedy’s tenure with the Rockwood Police Department.

“We discussed with Officer Kennedy the need to verbal(ly) inform a subject of his intent to use force such as chemical spray,” the report reads. “We discussed alternatives to using force and how to possibly (defuse) a situation or make every attempt possible before resorting to use of force, which deploying chemical spray is considered the lowest level of the use of force continuum.”

Among other documentation in Kennedy’s file is a report dated April 11, 2015, that notes he was commended by a resident “for his attempts to assist and save a life.” No other details are included in the report.

And a Feb. 25, 2016, use of force report details Kennedy’s action to prevent a woman from overdosing on an unspecified prescription medication.

“I had to physically grab Ms. Vespie by her face and mouth to stop her from swallowing all of the medication,” Kennedy wrote. “Ms. Vespie spit the remaining chewed up pills out onto the floor. I didn’t know how many pills Ms. Vespie did swallow so I had Roane County EMS come and check her out.”

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