*Editors Note: There is some explicit language in this story. It has been edited as much as possible, while still allowing it to impact the story the same way it impacted the hearing. As a staff, we feel that it needs to be included accurately describe the events that transpired, as one of the greatest complaints was use of profanity.
The Drew County Grievance Committee met at 9 a.m. Monday, September 25, to hear the grievance brought forth by Jerome Perez, former Chief Deputy for the Drew County Sheriff’s Department. Committee Chairman Frank Appleberry called the meeting to order and determined that all members of the committee were present via roll call. Drew County Attorney Cliff Gibson introduced himself and stated that he was there to examine and cross-examine witnesses on behalf of Drew Co. Gibson also introduced Perez’s council, Rickey Hicks from Little Rock.
Gibson opened up by giving a brief synopsis of the situation that led to this committee hearing being necessary. Gibson introduced exhibit No. 1 as the email that was sent out notifying all necessary parties of the hearing itself.
Gibson next asked that all potential witnesses who may be called be identified for the benefit of the court reporter. Hicks agreed and asked if it would be preferable to the committee and Gibson, if they could swear the witnesses in while they had them there to save time later in the hearing. All parties agreed and the witnesses were sworn in as a group and then sequestered in the Quorum Courtroom to avoid witness corroboration and tampering.
Gibson then delivered his opening remarks. He remarked that the committee was meeting because Perez was claiming that Sheriff Tim Nichols fired him due to his race. Gibson noted that this hearing would allow both the employee and the supervisor to be heard and then the Grievance Committee would have to determine whether or not Perez’s termination was lawful, or does it violate Perez’s constitutional rights in some way.
Hicks followed with his opening statements and said that Perez was not claiming there was racial discrimination, or implying that Nichols was a racist.
“We are here because his termination was unconstitutional,” Hicks said. “He feels that his termination violated his First Amendment rights. Mr. Perez says that the situation at the jail was just the culmination of a larger number of things.”
Hicks then thanked the committee members for their service and said that one of the “great American rights” was being seen in action through due process of the law.
Hicks said that terminating Perez, who had no write-ups or verbal reprimands, was going from zero to one hundred at the drop of a hat.
“I feel that a lot of things are going to be revealed,” Hicks said.
Hicks added that the reason Perez’s constitutional rights had been violated was because Nichols began to treat him differently after hearing a recording where others were telling Perez that he should run for Sheriff and that he would make a better sheriff than Nichols. Hicks argued that if Perez did say he wanted to run, he has that right, and can not be treated differently or discriminated against for voicing that information. In wrapping up his opening statement, Hicks reiterated that there were no claims of racial discrimination.
Hicks then called his first witness, Sheriff Nichols, to testify before the committee. Nichols stated that he had been in law enforcement since 2007. He added that during the campaign process and following the election, Perez had supported him fully. Nichols stated that whenever he announced that he would run, he was contacted by Perez in 2021 telling him that if Nichols won, he wanted the Chief Deputy position. Nichols said that after talking with Perez, he agreed to make the call pending he wins the election. When asked how long he had known Perez, Nichols said that he had known Perez since 2015 through work-related interactions. When Hicks asked if, through his dealings and knowledge of Perez, Nichols felt comfortable appointing Perez as Chief Deputy, Nichols said that he did at that time. Hicks asked what the Chief Deputy’s job duties are.
“The Chief Deputy supervises the patrol side of the Sheriff’s Office,” Nichols said. “They are also assisting in the administrative, scheduling, time off requests, they are the right hand of the sheriff.”
When asked if the chief deputy had any authority in the detention center, Nichols stated that the Jail Administrator, Courtney Hale, was directly beneath the sheriff, and had the authority to run the facility. Nichols said that the Chief Deputy and Jail Administrator had the same level of authority, in their respective areas. They do not have to answer to each other, only the sheriff.
This question was prompted after Perez and Hale had a verbal spat at the jail earlier in the year. Allegedly. Perez mentioned to Hale that a prisoner on lockdown shouldn’t be receiving special privileges. Hale told him that he might as well just run the jail too. This situation led to a meeting between Nichols, Perez, and Hale. Nichols said that during this meeting he clarified yet again, that Hale was in charge of the jail, and she made the final decisions.
Hicks then asked Nichols how Perez had performed in his Chief Deputy duties. Nichols said that in the eight months since being in the position of Chief Deputy, Perez had not made a great effort to attend training that Nichols had asked him to go to. Nichols also said that it wasn’t uncommon for Perez to come in at 9-9:30 a.m. Nichols said that Perez would do anything he was asked, and would go to events, but he would have liked to see Perez be a little more involved in his downtime. He wished Perez would have communicated if he was going to be late, or that Perez would go out on patrol with the other deputies if he had free time. Nichols said that Perez met the requirements to be a deputy, but maybe not the Chief Deputy.
Hicks also asked Nichols if he had discussed the recording where there was talk of Perez running for sheriff. He said that they had discussed it, and Perez told him that he wasn’t going to run at this time, and they ended the discussion there.
Hicks then asked Nichols to give a rundown of the series of events that led to Perez being terminated. Nichols said on August 20, Perez sent him a message about some issues that were going on in the detention facility. Nichols said that he relayed this message to Hale, who told him she would have a staff meeting to address these issues.
On August, 23, Hale set a meeting with all jail staff for 8 a.m. Perez was present at the meeting, and Hale asked him to leave. He refused to leave. Hale called Nichols, who called Perez and asked him to leave the jail and come to the Sheriff’s Office, Perez refused Nichols three times, and hung up on him the third time, according to Nichols. During one of these attempts to get him to leave, Perez began to question why he couldn’t be at the meeting.
Nichols said that a short time later, Hale called him crying. After refusing to leave the meeting, Perez mumbled under his breath and shook his head throughout the entire meeting, according to what Hale relayed to Nichols. During this mumbling, he kept saying that this meeting was “bull**it”, and that nothing important got discussed.
Nichols said that when Perez finally came to meet him, he denied using profanity. He then proceeded to slam a box down of Nichols' desk and asked if Nichols wanted his badge, to which Nichols answered no. This was shown via body cam footage recorded by another officer. Perez further said that none of the jail issues were even discussed. Perez said that Hale and Jail Compliance Officer Jacob Parker were in collusion and that's why they told Nichols he had used profanity during the meeting. Perez stressed that he had Nichols back, but that the Sheriff didn’t have his, especially when it comes to Hale.
In a later message, Perez said that “he wasn’t going to that jail for s**t. I don’t care if they’re beating the s**t out of one of them. Don’t call me.”
Nichols said that Perez was insubordinate and displayed conduct unbecoming an officer. Nichols also said that Perez refused to give a written statement and that he should use the camera footage from the meeting as his statement.
On August 28, it was also alleged that Perez approached Parker about his writing a statement. Perez told Parker that he understood he was trying to do his job, and not get fired, but Hale wouldn’t make it much longer as Jail Administrator.
Nichols added that had Perez just left the meeting at the jail and came to talk to him the rest of this situation could have been avoided.
Gibson then began his cross-examination of Nichols.
“When you were trying to get Perez to leave the meeting and come talk to you were you trying to save him,” Gibson asked. “Was there a point when you realized it wasn’t working.”
Nichols answered yes, he was trying to save Perez and that he did reach a point where he knew that he couldn’t do anything else. Gibson then asked him why he hit this point and Nichols said that it was just the totality of all of the things that we’ve discussed here today, it wasn’t just one thing.
It was at this point that Gibson requested the committee be shown the videos of the meeting between Perez and Nichols following the jail meeting, and the meeting when Perez was terminated.
During the termination video, Perez requested copies of all videos, but Nichols refused under the advisement of legal counsel. He later provided Perez with the requested videos.
“I still stand by my decision to terminate Mr. Perez. I stand by it today, and I’ll stand by it tomorrow,” Nichols said when asked if he had any regrets. “I did what I feel was best for the county. This wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve lost sleep over this. I’ve prayed over this. I am confident that I did the right thing, and I continue to stand by it.”
After redirecting the witness, Hicks asked Nichols if Perez was aware that he was being filmed during the two meetings at the Sheriff’s Office. Nichols said that he couldn’t be sure one way or the other. Hicks then asked why these specific meetings were recorded.
“We recorded these meetings because Mr. Perez has a habit of over-talking and having to have his say,” Nichols said. “He also always wants you to prove anything you say to him. He can’t just accept anything.”
“Can you not understand how Mr. Perez could feel betrayed,” Hicks asked. “As he says repeatedly that he has your back, and that you don’t have his?”
“I couldn’t say what Mr. Perez feels,” Nichols answered.
After this, a few members of the committee had questions for the sheriff. Orlando Jones asked if the Chief Deputy/Jail Administrator structure had always been the way it currently is. Nichols said that to his knowledge, yes it had.
Committee member Joe Williams said that he never thought that race was the issue at hand. He also says that in his line of work, procedure is very important and asked if Nichols could give a more thorough description of the Chief Deputy’s duties.
“It’s very clear that the two of you were very close, maybe too close in retrospect,” Williams added. “Why could we not have recommended anger management or other training?”
“Has any other deputy ever told you “no”?” asked Williams.
“Not to my knowledge,” answered Nichols.
In one final question to Nichols, Hicks asked that if the committee were to recommend that Perez be rehired, would Nichols abide by the recommendation.
“No, I will stand by my decision regardless of the recommendation,” Nichols said.
At this time, 11:30 a.m., the court recessed for lunch until 1 p.m.
When the court reconvened at 1 p.m., Hicks called Perez to testify before the committee. Perez stated that he had four years of law enforcement experience, stating that he had worked for the Monticello Police Department, where he transitioned into the School Resource Officer role, before accepting the Chief Deputy role once Nichols was elected Sheriff.
Hicks asked Perez to list his job duties and responsibilities as Chief Deputy. Perez said that he had never been told what those duties or responsibilities were. Perez says that initially, he wasn’t told of the hierarchy or chain of command either. He said Nichols had only told him to ‘keep doing what you’re doing’ when asked about job duties.
Perez said that he started noticing issues at the jail almost immediately. He said there was an issue with an inmate who was on lockdown for fighting, and they were going to let him have special privileges. Perez said that he approached Hale about not giving the inmate special privileges while on lockdown. Perez said that she told him, “I’m tired of this s**t, here’s the keys. You run this mother f***ng jail.”
Perez also noted that inmates were allowed to go outside and smoke when they shouldn’t be outside. He also said that employees were constantly using their cellphones inside the jail which is against the rules.
Perez also stated that there was never a meeting between Nichols, Hale, and himself where the chain of command for the jail was discussed.
When asked about the recording where there was talk of Perez running for sheriff, he said that yes there was a recording, but he was not there, some friends made the recording. He did state that at some point in the future, he would not be against running for sheriff, but at this point, eight months in, he’s just worried about figuring out how to be Chief Deputy.
Perez also mentioned that jail staff had left firearms in vehicles that trustees have access to, which is unsafe and unacceptable.
In regards to the August 23 meeting, Perez said that he was only at the jail because the sheriff called him, so he assumed Nichols wanted him there. Perez said that when he arrived, the people who should be documenting everyone who entered and exited the facility were too busy playing on their cellphones rather than focusing on their jobs. Perez said that at no time did Nichols direct him to leave the meeting and return to the office immediately, he did ask him to come by, just not immediately.
Perez said that during the meeting, nothing was addressed that needed to be done, and nothing changed, so he left the meeting. He said while he was leaving,Hale told him what he thought didn’t matter anyway because he didn’t work there. He responded with, “Neither do you”, but meant to say you won’t for much longer.
Perez said that Nichols always sides with Hale in every situation. He said that this lets him know that Nichols doesn’t have his back like he claims.
Perez said he asked Nichols what the point of him being there was if he couldn’t make any decisions. He said Nichols told him that they were good and that he loved him. Perez said that he thought everything was resolved at that point. Perez added that when Nichols then proceeded to terminate him, he was caught off guard and didn’t know what to do.
At this point, Hicks produced a four-page document that Perez had typed for the committee members that was designed to highlight certain points of his testimony.
Gibson objected to this document as he had not been allowed to see it until that very moment, and neither had Sheriff Nichols. Gibson further objected that this was a typical surprise tactic that is common in this type of proceeding. Gibson added that the committee needs to have time to review, and they need to know that this action is unfair to all involved. Gibson added that this document could have serious implications and that it needed to be held until the following day so that it could be read and studied, and so that Gibson could see if he needed to call witnesses to possibly impeach the document. No one wanted to have a second day’s proceedings so they agreed to hold off on the document.
Perez added that Shelly Smith was fired for saying that he needed to run for sheriff, and would make a better sheriff than our current one.
Hicks asked Perez what he hoped to gain from this hearing.
“I just want my job back,” said Perez.
Gibson then began his cross-examination of Perez. He began by asking if Perez thought he would be a better sheriff than Nichols. Perez stated that he never said that, and that he can’t control what other people have said. Gibson then asked Perez if he was emotional whenever he met Nichols after the August 23 meeting. Perez said that he was indeed emotional. Gibson asked if he lost his cool at any point. Perez said he had not at any point lost his cool.
Gibson then moved to the issue of Perez being accused of using profanity directed at Hale following the meeting. On the video provided by Nichols, Perez denied having used profanity, but later recanted and said that he had said the meeting was “bull**it”, but that he did not direct it at Hale personally. Gibson asked him if it made it okay because it wasn’t directed at her, and Perez said that it wasn’t
Gibson further addressed Perez and stated that Nichols truly valued him, and had done a lot to try to save him.
“That’s not true,” Perez said. “Just because he says it front of everyone doesn’t make it true. It only makes it his opinion.”
When asked about refusing to provide a written statement on the jail incident, Perez says that Nichols told him not to worry about writing one. Gibson went on to state that every jailer wrote one. Perez said that was because they thought their jobs were on the line.
“Yours was too,” Gibson said.
“I didn’t think it was at the time,” Perez replied.
In the statements written by the majority of the jailers, Perez was deemed unprofessional, and his actions were seen as unnecessary. Perez said that these statements were full of lies and that the employees who wrote them were liars.
Hicks jumped in and said that Gibson was breaking evidentiary rules by reading these statements when the people who gave them were present to testify.
Hicks was then allowed to redirect the witness. He brought up the firearms being left in vehicles. Perez said that initially, he didn’t have the photos, they were given to him at a later point, but he did bring it to Nichols’ attention because Hale wouldn’t.
Perez also stated that even if he had known he was being recorded in Nichols’ office, he still would have been highly emotional.
At this point, Perez did get emotional and showed how taxing and stressful proceedings like this can be. In a sign of humanity, committee member Orlando Jones requested a brief recess to allow Perez to recompose himself. The committee agreed and recessed for 10 minutes.
Upon reentering the witness chair, Jones asked him why he was so passionate.
“I was just there to tell him that I had his back, and I feel that it wasn’t mutual,” Perez said.
“Did you feel that you were in a safe place to show that passion?” committee member Ben Higginbotham asked.
“With someone who called me his brother, his family… yes,” answered Perez.
Hicks called his final witness, Jacqueline Jones. Jones is an employee of the Drew Co. Detention Facility, who has worked there for approximately 10 years. Jones said that she was certain that Perez had addressed security and safety concerns regarding the jail. Jones said that she had addressed concerns to Perez such as notes being passed between inmates, and staff helping pass notes.
Jones said that she didn’t see Perez at the August 23 meeting due to where they were each located in the building. She says that she would have been able to hear him if he were being disruptive, and she says she did not hear him.
Gibson began his cross-examination by asking Jones if she left the meeting at the same time as Perez. She stated that she was directly in front of him. She was asked if she had seen or heard Hale crying after the meeting. She stated that she did not because she was already outside. She said she only heard about it later from others.
Gibson then moved to his witnesses and called Jail Administrator Courtney Hale. Hale stated that she had worked as the Administrator’s Assistant for around 10 years, and came on as Jail Administrator in January when Nichols took office.
Hale then discussed the episode where she and Perez disagreed on giving an inmate special privileges. She said that she told him that he did not run things in the jail. She also said that, unlike Perez’s statement, there was indeed a meeting between Nichols, Perez, and herself to discuss who has authority over the jail.
Hale said that before the August 23 meeting, Perez received a text from a jail employee discussing some issues. Perez then informed Nichols who in turn informed Hale. She said that she informed Nichols that she would schedule a meeting with all of her employees. On August 23, she scheduled a meeting for 8 a.m. with all of the jail staff which was around 12-13 at that time. Hale said that she asked Perez if she could speak with him privately, and asked him to leave the meeting.
“I am the Chief Deputy, and I’m not going anywhere. I have the right to be here,” Perez stated according to Hale.
Hale says that Perez then returned to the booking room and shut the door. Hale decided to continue with the meeting anyway and says Perez stood in the break room door the whole time.
Hale says that she started going through the agenda, and Perez was constantly saying “This is bull**it”. Hale decided to adjourn the meeting. Hale said that at this point Perez once again declared the meeting to be bull**it and that nothing of importance was even covered. Hale said he also told her that she had, “no clue how to run this f***ing jail” on his way out the door.
Hale said she was so upset by the incident that she began crying and had to step out to call the sheriff.
Hicks opened his cross-examination of Hale by asking her if she told Perez, “Here are the keys, you run this mother f***er.” She replied that she did not.
“Did you leave the jail,” asked Hicks.
“Yes, I stepped out for about 10 minutes to call the sheriff,” Hale replied.
Hicks then asked if Perez had directed any profanity directly at Hale. She replied that no he had not. Hicks asked if it is common for profanity to be used in a jail. Hale said that it is.
Upon the redirect, Gibson asked Hale if she felt like Perez was trying to impose his authority on her. She said that she did and that she felt like he was trying to intimidate her.
Gibson called his next witness, Vincent Shaw, who has been a jailer for around a year. Shaw said that in his opinion, Hale reacted very well to a highly uncalled-for situation. He said that she was left in a vulnerable state, and was left in tears.
During cross-examination, Hicks asked Shaw why half of his statement was written in cursive and half was printed. Shaw said that was just the way he writes. Hicks also asked if Shaw would say that Perez had disrupted the meeting. Shaw said he would not say he was disruptive during the meeting.
On redirect, Gibson asked Shaw would someone making the situation highly emotion not be considered disruptive. Shaw said if it happened in the meeting, yes, but all of this happened after the meeting.
Gibson then called Paul New to testify. New is a jailer at the Drew Co. Detention Facility.
New said that there was indeed drama at the meeting. New said he witnessed Perez in the booking office and saw Hale pull him to the side and asked him to leave. New said that he heard Perez say that he was the Chief Deputy and that he had the right to be there. New said that after the meeting, he heard Perez state that the meeting was bull**it and that nothing had been discussed. New said that Perez was very unprofessional and that his behavior was uncalled for.
During cross-examination, Hicks asked if Perez’s actions could be considered disruptive. New said that during the meeting no, but Perez could have found a better way to handle the situation.
On redirect, Gibson asked how Hale reacted to the situation. New said that she was visibly upset and shaking. He said she clearly felt demeaned in front of her entire staff.
Gibson then calls Ms. McHenry, who is a jailer at the facility and has also worked at the juvenile center in Dermott.
McHenry said that during the meeting on August 23, Perez deliberately embarrassed Hale in front of her staff, which was uncalled for.
She wasn’t in the wrong,” McHenry said. “He was.”
On cross-examination, Hicks asked how Perez embarrassed her.
“By telling her that she wasn’t doing her f****ng job,” said McHenry.
McHenry went on to say that his behavior was uncalled for, but she didn’t get to observe all of it because she was in the control booth.
On his redirect, Gibson asked how Hale reacted to Perez’s behavior.
“She broke down and started crying,” McHenry said. “I hugged her and told her to stop crying.”
Gibson then called his final witness, Jail Compliance Officer, Jacob Parker.
Parker said that on August 23, there was a called meeting for all jail staff. He said that when he arrived, Perez was there. Parker stated that Hale called Perez to the side, and asked him to leave, but he stated that he wasn’t going anywhere, as Chief Deputy he had the right to stay. Parker said that Hale agreed to move forward with the meeting. He said that he addressed the staff on some compliance issues, and then Hale asked if anyone had any comments or questions. Parker said that Perez sat through the meeting shaking his head the whole time and mumbling about the meeting being bull**it.
On cross-examination, Hicks asked Parker if in his opinion he thought Perez disrupted the meeting. Parker said that it wasn’t disruptive, but Perez was mumbling the whole time.
Hicks also asked Parker if he was aware of firearms being left in places where inmates could get to them. Parker said that he didn’t know and that it had not been brought to his attention. Upon being shown the photos that Perez provided, Parker admitted that one of the firearms was his weapon and that he had left it in the vehicle by accident while on a transport job.
Gibson said he had nothing further.
This led to both Gibson and Hicks giving closing statements.
Gibson said that the jail has passed multiple inspections, and is moving in the right direction, and a lot of these inspections should serve to negate some of the complaints.
Gibson further stated that one thing about this hearing is certain and that is that there is no racism or First Amendment violations. He added that the Sheriff acted within his scope, as he can hire and fire his employees as he sees fit.
“What we have here is a man who wanted to be in charge of everything, who wanted to be sheriff, but he’s not,” Gibson said.
“This is very unfortunate,” Gibson added. “But I don’t think that there is any proof that Sheriff Nichols violated any laws through his actions. I don’t believe that this is a sustainable grievance.”
Hicks closed by thanking the committee members for their attentiveness to this matter, adding that there is so much on the line.
“I staunchly disagree with Mr. Gibson’s remarks,” Hicks said. “You are the gatekeepers, and just because he is an elected official doesn’t mean that he is above you. He must be held to the law just like everyone else. I argue that there was a First Amendment violation. Due to the recording of the people talking about Mr. Perez running for sheriff, Sheriff Nichols began to treat Perez differently.”
“This petty little spat is not grounds to terminate someone,” Hicks continued. “Jerome is supposed to bring up issues, and the only complaint that they have is that he used the word “bull**it”. To get emotional over the use of profanity in a jail setting is questionable.”
“In an effort to have a unified community, send the message that a man who gave so much shouldn’t be fired for one issue,” Hicks concluded.
Committee member Jones made a motion that the committee be moved into executive session for deliberation of the evidence. The committee members voted in favor and they moved into a private location to review the facts presented.
After nearly an hour, the committee came in from the executive session. Grievance Committee Chairman Appleberry called for the members to cast their votes. Justices Frank Appleberry, Roger Harris, Donna Ursry, Sheila Maxwell, Steve Piggott, and Zachary Hill all voted that Perez had not sufficiently proved that Sheriff Nichols had violated his First Amendment rights or discriminated against him, while Justices Joe Williams, Orlando Jones, and Ben Higginbotham felt that Perez had provided sufficient evidence that a violation had occurred. In the end, the grievance was not upheld.