Rocky Mount soon will be seeking a new police chief.
Ken Criner, who led the town’s police department for seven years — and whose final months in office brought controversy and a suspension without pay — has retired. His last day with the town was Sept. 2 and his departure was announced Tuesday.
“He’s led the department through some difficult times,” said Rocky Mount Town Manager Robert Wood. “We wish him the best.”
Criner’s second in command, Capt. Mark Lovern, has been named interim police chief, said Wood, who became town manager in May. Rocky Mount officials will conduct a national search for Criner’s replacement.
Criner’s law enforcement career spans more than three decades, which makes him eligible for retirement under the state system. He joined the Rocky Mount department in 2010 after serving with the Roanoke Police Department. He was tapped to become chief in 2014 after the death of his predecessor, David Cundiff.
A graduate of the Senior Executive Institute at the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia, Criner put effort into increasing diversity in the police department in order to better reflect the community, promoting a Black woman officer to the rank of sergeant and moving the department “further along the path of improvement and modernization than many other law enforcement agencies,” Wood said.
However, the last two years of Criner’s term as chief have been marked by controversy. Last year, four police department employees filed federal discrimination complaints against the town. Three of those same employees also filed complaints with the town about Criner, alleging a hostile work environment and disparaging, profane comments made about subordinates.
Former Town Manager James Ervin, who retired in April, placed Criner on administrative leave for five weeks in spring 2020 in response to the complaints filed with the town. Criner was on unpaid leave for two of those weeks.
Records manager Regina Stanley, records clerk Karry Hodges, former town fire marshal David Bowles and former officer Justin Smith were the employees who filed Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaints. The EEOC ruling on Stanley’s complaint is still pending, said Roanoke attorney Terry Grimes.
Hodges, Bowles and Smith all received word from the EEOC that their complaints could go forward, Grimes said. Hodges and Bowles declined to pursue their cases further because of financial concerns, the attorney said.
“Smith intends to pursue his options,” Grimes said.
The dispute proved divisive within the department, which at full complement holds just over 20 employees. Last year saw a turnover of about half of the officers on the force.
Two of the officers who defended Criner in Facebook comments, Sgt. Thomas “T.J.” Robertson and K9 Unit Officer Jacob Fracker, ended up as even bigger lightning rods themselves after they took a selfie inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riots.
Activist groups in Franklin County called for Criner’s and Ervin’s resignations after the selfie was leaked to social media. The town fired Fracker and Robertson on Jan. 26.
Federal authorities have charged Robertson and Fracker with obstruction of an official proceeding, which is a felony, and misdemeanor offenses of entering a restricted building and disorderly conduct in the Capitol. The next hearing in the case is scheduled for Sept. 23 in Washington, D.C.