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East Bank officials must pay $646,000 to fired officer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- East Bank officials will pay more than $600,000 to a former police officer fired amid a period of political turmoil that surrounded the small eastern Kanawha County town in 2008.After a weeklong trial last month, a jury awarded Steve W. Smith $646,000 on claims that city officials wrongfully fired the officer after he charged town recorder Bill Thompson with obstruction and disorderly conduct for intervening in the arrest of his neighbor. Thompson confronted Smith at the police department and called 911 dispatchers to ask for another police agency to "mediate" the arrests. Thompson was eventually charged with disorderly conduct after he reportedly threatened Police Chief Jess Inclenrock.The same week, the town council suspended and later fired Smith over allegations he had used a Taser to "drive stun" a woman and a volunteer firefighter.The jury found the town liable of intentional infliction of emotional distress and ordered them to pay Smith $93,000 in compensatory damages, which included back pay. They also awarded $350,000 in punitive damages, Smith's lawyer, J.B. Akers said.Jim Muldoon, the lawyer who represented East Bank officials in the suit, did not respond to a request for comment.Court records said in September 2008, town employee Neil Kidd caught Todd Conley stealing water from the East Bank water system. Conley allegedly turned the water back on at his house after it had been turned off, court records state.Police filed charges against Todd Conley and a magistrate issued a warrant for his arrest. Inclenrock assigned the arrest to Smith. Smith and a training officer went to the Conleys' house and knocked on the door. Miranda Conley answered the door and told the men that her husband was not home. Smith said they heard at least two people in the house and that the officers would enter the home and arrest Conley by force. At that point, Conley appeared. Smith told Miranda Conley that he would file a complaint against her for obstruction and that he would be back the next day to place her under arrest.When Smith arrived at the house the next day, Miranda Conley called Thompson, who confronted the officer at the police station after dialing 911 and asking another law enforcement agency to mediate the arrest, court records state.Smith told Thompson that his actions were bordering on disorderly conduct. Thompson then apparently goaded Smith to arrest him, according to court records.Thompson returned to the station the same week to confront Inclenrock and Smith about Smith's conduct and the Conley arrests, court records state. Inclenrock considered the situation a quorum because four council members were discussing town business.
Two members left the room but Inclenrock still refused to enter into a discussion until Thompson agreed to waive his Miranda rights, court records state."At that point, Mr. Thompson said that if he filed charges against him he would respond in kind," according to motion filed last year. "Chief Inclenrock perceived this as a threat."
Inclenrock proceeded to file a criminal complaint against Thompson and days later, the town council retaliated by placing the police department on the meeting agenda. Thomas Seabolt, an East Bank fireman, told the council members that he and Smith were horseplaying when he used a Taser to drive stun him.A drive stun is when the Taser's contact points are placed against a person and set at a low charge. Another witness, Candace White, told the council that Smith also drive stunned her while he was talking with her on her front porch. The two were having a conversation about the device and White told Smith that she wanted to buy one. Smith said he was a Taser instructor and that she may be drive stunned as part of her certification."She asked if it hurt," court records state. "He said the sensation is similar to a bee sting."
The council voted to place Smith on administrative leave based on the Taser incidents. He was later fired after the council members determined he did not have any statutory review rights. Smith had only worked at the department a short time and was still under a probationary period.Inclenrock argued that Smith's probationary period had been nullified because he had promoted him to sergeant. Smith also was training another officer at the time.After he left the East Bank department, Smith was hired by the Glasgow Police Department. Last year, a man shot Smith in the upper arm while he was investigating a burglary. Smith was wearing plainclothes, and the man mistook the officer for an intruder, according to previous Gazette reports. Smith started working at the East Bank department in 2008, the same year a new town council was voted in. That year also marked the first election in which longstanding Mayor Chuck Blair was opposed. Thompson himself ran against Blair in previous elections.Blair said that the new council meetings were generally negative toward Inclenrock's department. Inclenrock and Blair had a strong relationship, court records state.Reach Zac Taylor at or 304-348-5189.
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