UPDATE: 5:15 p.m. Monday, April 22, 2019.This story has been updated to reflect that Paul Blackwell entered a plea of no contest, not a plea of guilty, in Circuit Court earlier today.
After 105 days of paid administrative leave, Paul Blackwell resigned Monday as Tullahoma Chief of Police after entering a plea to the Class C felony of tampering with evidence.
Blackwell entered a plea of no contest in Coffee County Circuit Court Judge Craig Johnson’s courtroom Monday morning, according to Terry Frizzell, who represented the former police chief in court this week. By entering a no contest plea, Blackwell did not admit any guilt, however he did not dispute the charge.
Blackwell will serve a four-year suspended sentence with deferred judgement, meaning he will see no jail time provided he abides by the terms of his probation.
“So long as he does not violate probation – no jail time,” Coffee County District Attorney General Craig Northcott said.
Northcott added the plea agreement came “by information,” which means Blackwell avoided the case being presented to a grand jury by entering the plea.
Additionally, Northcott and Frizzell both said Blackwell may petition to have his conviction expunged from his record after completing his probation.
As part of the plea entered this week, Northcott said Blackwell also voluntarily “gave up” his Tennessee Peace Officers Standards and Training Office (POST) certification, meaning he is no longer a certified police officer in the State of Tennessee, and thereby forfeited his position as chief of police.
According to Northcott, by surrendering that certification, Blackwell will no longer be eligible to serve as a certified police officer in the state.
When asked to elaborate on the details of what actions Blackwell took to merit a charge of tampering with evidence, Northcott referred those questions to Pro Tem Prosecutor Jennings Jones, who serves the 16th judicial district of Rutherford and Cannon counties and handled the prosecution of this case after Northcott recused himself in January citing his “close professional relationship” with the Tullahoma Police Department.
Jones declined to comment on the specifics but did confirm the felony charge is the most serious charge Blackwell was facing.
Jones said Blackwell’s decision to enter the plea to the tampering with evidence does not mean the former police chief accepted a lesser charge than he may have otherwise faced.
“It was a plea agreement, but [he] did not avoid more serious charges,” Jones told The News.
Northcott added that George Marsh, the former police captain who resigned in February, also gave up his POST certification in the state and will not face any criminal charges related to the investigation.
Like Blackwell, Marsh was placed on paid administrative leave by the city on Jan. 7. He had served as a member of the Tullahoma Police Department since 2004. He was promoted to captain in 2015 and served as acting chief from May through September of last year, while Blackwell served as interim city administrator.
Timeline of investigation
Blackwell was placed on paid administrative leave on Jan. 7, following two investigations into the police department.
In December, Northcott requested the TBI investigate a complaint against the department’s handling of the investigation of a November motor vehicle crash involving Blackwell’s son, Jonathan Paul Blackwell.
By early January, the city had launched its own, separate investigation into “department management and possible breach of internal protocols,” per City Administrator Jennifer Moody.
However, Moody subsequently suspended the city’s probe, pending the outcome of the TBI’s investigation.
“ … being hopeful for a quick resolution of the matter, I suspended the internal investigation pending the final outcome,” Moody told The News. “In summary, the two investigations were originally separate and running concurrent; but as of late January, the city’s internal investigation has been on hold, pending the final outcome of the TBI’s investigation.”
The News has reached out to Blackwell and all members of the city board for comment and will update this story as more information becomes available.
Later in the afternoon on Monday, Mayor Lane Curlee gave the following statement to The News:
"I appreciate Chief Blackwell’s many years of service to the citizens and the City of Tullahoma. I wish nothing but the best for him and his family.”
Erin McCullough may be reached at email@example.comM.
Update 5:50 p.m., April 22, 2019:
The City of Tullahoma released the following statement on Blackwell’s departure from the department late Monday afternoon:
Paul Blackwell, the Police Chief for the City of Tullahoma, submitted a letter of retirement on April 22, 2019. Blackwell began his career with the city in 2007.
“I am pleased to see the TBI and District Attorney’s Office complete their investigative work. I am particularly proud of our officers who diligently performed their duties during this difficult time and cooperated fully at every step of the investigation,” said City Administrator Jennifer Moody. “Today, we are relieved to finally have an outcome so that we may begin moving the department forward in a more positive direction.
“The men and women of the Tullahoma Police Department are dedicated and commit themselves to a higher moral standard for honesty, justice, and public service. While we are empathetic to the circumstances, it is no less disappointing to learn that the chief acted inappropriately. I hope that the citizens of Tullahoma can find relief in the fact that these actions have had consequences and have found to be limited to this specific incident. We intend to pivot from this time of difficulty and use it to rededicate the Tullahoma Police Department to earning the public’s trust and proving our commitment to transparency. I look forward to working with new leadership in the Tullahoma Police Department that will carry forward the rich legacy of professional police work and partnering with the community to promote public safety and crime prevention.”