Communication Builds Our Community

Allegations Lead to Firing of Lake Wales Police Chief

City Manager Takes Steps to Address Public Distrust of Processes

UPDATE: Only days after this story was published, the decision was reversed, resulting in a second story which can be read here.

Robert Connors

Lake Wales Police Chief Chris Velasquez has been suspended and will ultimately be replaced after City manager James Slaton grew frustrated by problems with the department's hiring practices.

Issues of nepotism, favoritism, and a lack of transparency are apparently behind the future replacement of Lake Wales Police Chief Chris Velasquez, who was informed Monday of a three-day suspension and eventual replacement by City Manager James Slaton.

The action follows a complaint filed by the Poor and Minority Justice Association early this year alleging that the department had changed the rules during a hiring process for a new lieutenant to accommodate one individual, who was ultimately hired.

An original notice of job opening stated that an associate degree was a requirement. A day later a modified notice changed that to "by December 31."

Dr. Clayton Cowart, an area minister, told media representatives that although there were Black and minority officers who had attained the rank of sergeant and were already qualified by having their associate degrees, the rules were changed after the position was advertised to accommodate an additional applicant who expected to receive a degree before the end of the year. That White applicant was then chosen to fill the position.

In an internal memorandum to Valasquez, Slaton cited "an appearance of unfairness in the process" evident "as a result of deviations from past promotional practices and the amendment of minimum qualifications in the position announcement."

Courtesy City of Lake Wales

City Manager James Slaton was critical of several action taken by Velasquez that gave the impression of nepotism and unfair hiring practices at the Lake Wales Police Department.

In the memo, Slaton said decisions "impermissibly motivated by race" had been cited in a complaint, but that an investigation by Human Resources Director Sandra Davis found no supporting evidence for the claim but added that "I am forced to consider re-opening the Lieutenant position in which Dale Hampton was appointed," Slaton wrote. "All applicants may re-apply after a promotional process is defined and adopted."

"During my time as city manager I have heard repeated public concerns in two critical areas," Slaton wrote, citing nepotism and "a perception of lack of transparency."

"The issues related to the recent Lieutenant promotions are consistent with public concerns in these areas, specifically," Slaton wrote, while also pointing out a decision by Velasquez to "hire one of your sergeant's daughters" for a position within the department. "It is time for new leadership to address the challenges we face."

Slaton's letter goes on to say that Velasquez will be allowed to return to work on an interim basis until a new police chief can be hired.

Repeated complaints of favoritism and nepotism have dogged the department for several years, including some raised by former members of the department who have complained about preferential hiring relatives of present or past city employees.

Shortly after assuming his role as city manager, Slaton took steps to address the complaints. He reactivated a long-dormant "Citizens and Police Community Relations Advisory Committee," which now meets monthly to hear complaints and comments from citizens.

According to their official website, the Lake Wales Police Department includes 48 sworn law enforcement officers and seven civilian members, who are assisted by 10 volunteer members of the "Voice" unit.

 

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