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Former Rocky Mount police officer sues the town alleging retaliation
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Former Rocky Mount police officer sues the town alleging retaliation

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A former Rocky Mount police officer claims that he was forced to resign after supporting two female employees who said they were harassed by the police chief.

Justin Smith made the allegations in a lawsuit against the town filed Thursday.

Not long after Smith went to work for the police department in 2017, he learned that then-police chief Ken Criner “had made terribly inappropriate and offensive comments concerning female employees” in the department’s records division, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

Among the allegations: Criner used derogatory terms for the women, said he wanted to get rid of them so he could “hire some hotties,” and accused one of them — who was suffering from an aggressive form of breast cancer — of taking advantage of sick leave.

Smith complained to his superiors and helped the employees file complaints with the town officials and discrimination charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Criner — who is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit — was later placed on administrative leave for five weeks, two of them without pay. He retired last month after seven years as police chief and more than 30 years in law enforcement.

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The lawsuit claims that Criner retaliated against Smith after he came to suspect that the officer, who by then was a detective, was behind the complaints.

On May 20, 2020, he suspended overtime pay for employees, which resulted in a loss of income for Smith, the lawsuit states. At the same time, the town said in a letter to the complaining employees that its investigation had been costly.

Ten days later, The Roanoke Times published a story detailing the complaints against Criner, which until then were not publicly known. The town manager suspected that Smith was a source for the newspaper, the lawsuit alleges, and two days later Criner demoted him as an investigator and reassigned him to patrol duty.

Smith left the department the following month “as a result of the harassment and retaliation,” according to the lawsuit.

Rocky Mount Town Attorney John Boitnott declined to comment Friday, saying he had not seen the filings.

Accusing the town of retaliating against Smith, the lawsuit seeks an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages, as well as other relief that may be “just and equitable.”

The lawsuit does not specifically request that Smith be reinstated to his former job. His attorney, Terry Grimes of Roanoke, said that is an option that will be considered later.

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