Sgt. Michael Allen will serve as interim police chief after commissioners in a tight vote Thursday fired Chief John Hamm, according to one official and law enforcement sources.
Allen takes over a department at the center of a long-running conflict about police staffing, public safety and fiscal responsibility that shows no signs of abating and might be getting hotter with one commissioner vowing to call in the Texas Rangers to investigate official misconduct.
Hamm packed his belongings at the police station and said his goodbyes Friday, he said. The position was the best job he’d ever had, and he’d been flooded with texts and calls from friends offering support, he said.
“I’ve closed out the office this afternoon and turned the keys over,” Hamm said. “Certainly, it was a very tear-filled day.”
Hamm had recommended his second-in-command, Capt. John Jenkins, to lead the department, he said. City officials, however, picked Allen, City Commissioner Monica Cantrell said.
Hamm’s termination this week came after months of tension between the police department and city officials, particularly Mayor Dorothy Childress.
Facing a $900,000 budget deficit going into the new year, city officials have been searching for savings.
Earlier this year, the city commission voted to eliminate four police positions. The layoffs left the police department with 19 staff members, including 13 police officers and six support staff members.
The ongoing financial struggles have created unfortunate divides in the community, Hitchcock resident Sam Collins III said. Some residents had mounted opposition against the mayor over the budget cuts and had unfairly painted her as anti-police, he said.
“This idea that you don’t back the blue if you have to cut budgets is ridiculous,” Collins said.
The police department endured the brunt of the budget cuts because the department makes up the biggest part of the budget, but all departments have had their budgets reduced, Collins said.
“No matter where you cut, somebody was going to be unhappy,” Collins said. “If you cut someone at city hall, their family is not going to be happy, this is very painful.”
The city needed to right its ship financially, which meant making hard, and sometimes unpopular, decisions, Collins said. Collins considered Hamm a friend, but said it appeared Hamm had been fighting city leadership about the cuts, Collins said.
The commission has to make tough decisions for the overall well-being of Hitchcock and the city needs department heads who are willing to acknowledge that and work toward it, Collins said.
“He’s frustrated with losing officers and it has brought on a lot of pressure to do the same job with less people,” Collins said. “We’re all human beings, I get it. I don’t want to see anyone lose their benefits.”
Those frustrations came to a head Thursday night. Hamm’s supporters packed city hall to voice opposition to the police chief’s termination.
“Get her out,” the crowd chanted at Childress before the vote.
Commissioners Fard Abdullah and Randy Stricklind joined Childress in voting for Hamm’s ouster.
“I do not discuss personnel matters,” Childress said as the audience shouted for her to provide a reason for the decision.
Commissioners Cantrell and Mark Cook voted against Hamm’s termination. After storming out of an executive session held before the vote, Cantrell called for residents to mount a recall campaign against the mayor.
Cantrell said Friday she thought elected city officials had not been conducting business correctly. She had contacted county and state officials with concerns about how public meetings were being posted, and planned to contact the Texas Rangers, she said.
She didn’t have any knowledge that the police chief was going to be discussed, and that was not included on the agenda, which is required, she said.
“There are a lot of things that in my opinion need to be looked into and all kinds of procedures and policies that need to be in place that aren’t being practiced,” Cantrell said.
Previous city commissions had overspent, and the budget needed to be balanced, Cantrell said. But firing a popular, homegrown police chief was not the answer, she said.
Hamm had never been written up or disciplined, Cantrell said. The only apparent reason for the firing was that Childress had said she “could not work with him,” Cantrell said.
Other city officials had complained in the past that Hamm had not managed the overtime budget well, but Cantrell disagreed with that assessment, she said. Much of the overtime budget had been spent during Hurricane Harvey, she said.
“It’s not easy to maintain any 24-7 shift,” Cantrell said.
Childress did not respond to a request for comment at her home phone number Friday afternoon.