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 no contest 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.
Blackwell speaks out
In a statement released late Monday night [see related story], Blackwell acknowledged that the plea he entered in Circuit Court that morning stemmed from an accident last fall involving his son, Jonathan Paul Blackwell, and “a controlled substance.”
[Editor’s note: Former Tullahoma Police Chief Paul Blackwell released the following statemen…
According to Blackwell, he and his family “fully expected” his son to face criminal charges following the accident, however, the younger Blackwell was not arrested.
The former police chief said when he reviewed the report of the incident the following day, the “report indicated while my son was receiving medical attention, the ambulance personnel went through his pockets and found a controlled substance which they gave to the officer.”
“I also reviewed an email I had received a few days earlier, Nov. 28, from the Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police policy committee coordinator related to a suggested policy/procedure for police departments concerning Naloxone, an opioid antagonist,” Blackwell’s statement continues. “In this information was also reference to immunity from arrest, charges, or prosecution for covered instances if evidence is discovered as a result of medical attention. I sought further clarification and contacted the TN Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and received confirmation the immunity statute could be found in TCA 63-1-156.”
Blackwell said he sought the input of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse and other members of his department to see if the statute applied to his son’s circumstances, and, according to the former police chief, everyone agreed that it did.
“We discussed ‘if’ no charges are to be filed, in accordance with the statute, this is no longer a criminal report but a medical report,” Blackwell wrote in his statement.
Timeline of investigation
The former police chief 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 the November motor vehicle crash involving Blackwell’s son.
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 said. “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 city’s response
In a statement released late Monday afternoon, the city announced Blackwell has submitted “a letter of retirement” earlier that day, ending a career in Tullahoma that dated back to 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 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.”
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.com.
Managing Editor Kelly Lapczynski and Editor Andrea Agardy also contributed to this story.