The Kennesaw State chief of police resigned Aug. 1 amid an internal investigation relating to his leadership abilities, university officials confirmed.
Chief Roger Lee Stearns, who has served as police chief since 2014, did not cite a reason for his decision to step down, but alluded in his resignation letter to challenges related to his transition into leadership and the consolidation of KSU with Southern Polytechnic State University.
“There were many challenges for this agency to accept tremendous change in the face of transitioning from decades-long leadership to a new direction and vision,” Stearns wrote in the letter. “This challenge increased when going through consolidation, followed by several leadership changes at the top of the institution.”
However, an anonymous complaint sent to KSU President Sam Olens and University System of Georgia Police Chief Bruce Holmes on June 1 prompted an investigation into Stearns’ management of the public safety department. The complaint described low employee morale within the department, as well as inappropriate behavior and a general lack of regard for the command staff on the part of Stearns.
A report written by human resources officials who interviewed members of the command staff found a high turnover rate within the department, with at least 40 individuals resigning within the last three years. According to the report, many staff members attributed this loss of personnel to Stearns’ management style.
“Many of the interviewees stated that the Chief does not seek or heed input from his command staff,” the report read. “Chief Stearns has made it clear that he is the sole decision maker and ‘doesn’t make mistakes.'”
Additionally, the investigation uncovered reports of constant upheaval within the department. Personnel told human resources officials their physical locations and assignments were changed frequently and often without notice. Several indicated they were only made aware of a change in job duties after receiving the chief’s periodic newsletter.
“The sentiment was also expressed several times that the dust is never allowed to settle before another round of changes are implemented,” the report read. “Some feel that these changes in assignment and/or location are retaliatory in nature for disagreeing with Chief Stearns during staff meetings.”
The report also cited allegations of discrimination in Stearns’ discipline practices. In particular, staff members were concerned with former KSU police officer Bernice Nelson, a female officer of color who received 600 hours of repeat Officer Field Training after refusing to arrest students who stole a flag on the Marietta campus. The training program, as described in the original complaint letter, is designed for rookie officers just completing the law enforcement academy.
Command staff expressed discontent that similar disciplinary action was not taken against officers who made what they saw as more severe violations, such as entering students’ residences without permission and arresting a subject outside of KSU’s jurisdiction. A separate Equal Employment Opportunity investigation is now being conducted in regard to the disciplinary action taken against Nelson. She did not respond to requests for comment.
“Based on the interviews, there is a consensus that the command staff has little to no respect for Chief Stearns’ leadership abilities,” the report stated. “They expressed his inconsistent judgment, counterproductive leadership, lack of communication and mismanagement of resources as being detrimental to the success of the department.”
Stearns expressed to human resources officials, however, that he felt the problems within the department are more a result of uncooperative staff than his management style.
“When interviewed, Chief Stearns indicated his frustration at the ‘complaint culture’ of the department, stating that it is the most stubborn department he’s ever worked with,” the report stated. “He stated that his leadership style was visionary, decisive and developing. He concedes that staffing levels are problematic, but finding quality candidates has been difficult.”
Stearns did not respond to The Sentinel’s request for comment.
Deputy Chief Edward Stephens is now serving as acting chief of police. A national search is being conducted for Stearns’ replacement, according to an email to faculty and staff by Jeff Milsteen, chief legal affairs officer.