19-year veteran named interim leader of Forest Hill police following firing of chief

Capt. Lee Sumpter, a 19-year veteran of the Forest Hill Police Department, has been named its interim leader after the city fired Eddie Burns, according to a news release from the city.

The city plans to conduct a search to find its next permanent police chief, according to the news release.

Burns was fired Feb. 17 by City Manager Venus Wehle, a source familiar with the decision told the Star-Telegram. His tenure overseeing the police department was characterized by a series of resignations, difficulties recruiting new officers, and complaints of sexual and racial harassment, according to city records and multiple former officers.

The decision was not discussed with the full city council prior to Burns’ termination, the source said. City leadership was informed of the firing in an email.

The decision to separate Burns from the city came after “multiple recent matters with Burns which established that separation was best for all parties,” Wehle wrote in the city’s news release.

“Burns is aware of these matters and the City prefers to keep that between the City and Burns for the present,” according to the release.

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The firing initially came without an announcement from the city and the news release was only sent after several attempts to get comments from leadership.

Burns told the Star-Telegram in a text message Thursday that he plans to meet with an attorney before sharing any comment.

Burns, who was hired as the police chief in July 2021, received three letters of reprimand in 2023, one of which he attempted to appeal, according to personnel files obtained by the Star-Telegram.

The reprimands written by Wehle said that Burns responded to an email from a city council member without permission from Wehle, hired an attorney to represent the department without the city council’s permission, and met with an officer who was on leave and had filed a complaint against the city.

The former chief had filed an appeal to have the reprimand regarding his meeting with the officer removed from his file. He wrote that he met with the officer to discuss her options for time off and that they did not discuss her complaint against the department.

Former officers told the Star-Telegram that the problems in the department, some of which predated Burns but didn’t improve under his leadership, gave the department a reputation as a place officers didn’t want to work, but they didn’t attribute the issues or the reputation solely to his leadership.

From January 2022 to November 2023, 10 officers quit the department while Forest Hill police were only able to add three new officers, according to city records. The city said on Feb. 8 that it has not hired any new officers since that report, with the number employed remaining at 18.

Burns’ termination reduces that number to 17.

The department’s “toxic” work culture, complaints of harassment, outdated equipment, low pay and a lack of special duty assignments were listed as some of the reasons officers decided to quit the force in resignation letters from January 2022 to November 2023.

Wehle said in 2023 that the department was working to make changes to attract new officers including upgrading equipment, reevaluating departmental policies and offering new training opportunities for officers. Some former officers told the Star-Telegram those changes would do little to change the culture in the department they said had made it an unsuitable place to work.

Recruitment problems

The Forest Hill Police Department has been unable to hire any new officers beyond three employed prior to a November 2023 open records request, despite efforts by the city council to make employment with the department more attractive.

The U.S. Department of Justice last year awarded the city with a grant to hire three police officers for a three-year term, including the cost of some benefits, according to the DOJ’s website. Forest Hill received a total of $375,000 in a grant from the COPS Hiring Program.

The city was notified of the grant award by Sept. 20, 2023, according to the DOJ website.

In addition to the grant, the city council made provisions to make it easier for potential officers to apply by removing the requirement for candidates to take a civil service exam, a move Burns opposed when the council was considering it.

With a population of 13,701 in 2022 according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Forest Hill has about 1.2 officers for every 1,000 residents. According to statistics from the FBI, the national average number of police officers per 1,000 residents in a city was 2.4 in 2019, the latest year data was available.

Because of staffing issues, Wehle said in a previous interview that she decided the department would stop providing school resource officers in August of last year. That meant there was no resource officer at David K. Sellars Elementary when a shooting happened on the campus Oct. 11, 2023.

Yolanda Gibbs, a 56-year-old cafeteria worker who was remembered as a friendly person who always tried to make the school’s cafeteria a cheerful environment, was shot and killed in the parking lot that morning before doors opened to students. Police said Gibbs was killed by a man she had been dating, 58-year-old Anthony Harris, who was found dead in Fort Worth two days after the shooting. Harris’ death was ruled an accident from fentanyl toxicity, according to the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Burns’ background and reprimands

Burns was hired in July 2021 after the last police chief resigned from the department.

According to his personnel file, Burns initially applied to be the city’s fire chief but was hired to command its police department.

For five years, from 2006-2011, Burns was the Dallas Fire-Rescue chief, a term the Dallas Morning News in 2011 described as “rocky.” Under his leadership, Dallas Fire-Rescue was the subject of allegations of discrimination, sexual harassment and retaliation, all of which have been alleged during his tenure as the chief of Forest Hill police. During his time with the fire department, the Dallas Morning News reported Burns was named the “Worst Boss in America” by

He resigned after Dallas city leadership found out he owned a stake in a bar in Arlington and another in south Dallas, the Dallas Morning News reported.

The end of his term as police chief comes after the three letters of reprimand he received between March and October.

In a reprimand on Oct. 26, Burns was criticized for replying to an email form a council member sent directly to him. He copied Wehle in his response. The city manager cited the city charter and an ordinance that prohibited that communication.

The city charter says, in part, that “the City Council or its members shall deal with city officers and employees who are subject to the direction and supervision of the City Manager solely through the City Manager.”

Because city ordinances require that the city manager appoint the chief of police, Wehle said in the reprimand that Burns was not allowed to be contacted by any elected official and must direct any communication between himself and the mayor or city council through Wehle.

A meeting the former chief had with an officer whose name was redacted from the file sent to the Star-Telegram also resulted in a reprimand. Burns contested the reprimand, issued March 10, 2023, after he met with an officer who had lodged complaints against the department including a charge of discrimination submitted to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The reprimand is not specific about the type of discrimination alleged.

A Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the Star-Telegram for records relating to EEOC complaints against the city or police department was denied.

Wehle charged that Burns’ actions in the meeting, including allowing the officer to record a portion of the exchange, “evidence an extraordinary lack of good judgment and thus evidence incompetence in the performance of the general duties of a department head.”

Burns wrote in his rebuttal to the reprimand that orders not to speak to employees who had made complaints came after he met with the officer and that he tried several times to contact Wehle and the director of the city’s human resources department before the meeting but that nobody picked up or returned his calls.

Burns wrote that he told the HR director after the meeting that the officer was going on unpaid leave and wanted to know if there was anything Burns could do for her. He told her about the FMLA decision and that she would be able to cash in on vacation and sick leave and allowed her to record a portion of the meeting to maintain transparency, he said.

Burns was also criticized in a June 13, 2023, reprimand for hiring an attorney relating to the complaints filed with the EEOC. Wehle wrote in the reprimand that Burns hired the attorney without approval of the council but that the invoices were sent to the city.

Wehle wrote that Burns hired a firm regarding “legal issues pertaining to a Forest Hill Police Department employee and issues related to ADA and fitness.” Burns was notified in a city directive that Forest Hill already had a legal defense team and that the police chief does not have the authority to hire an attorney to represent the city or the police department.