Simpsonville Police Chief Keith Grounsell, who was hired in August, was fired by City Council on Friday night.
Exactly why remains unclear, however.
After a nearly two-hour, closed-door executive session, Grounsell was terminated in a 5-2 roll-call vote, based on an earlier motion by Council member Matthew Gooch to replace him with an interim chief. And that was it. No official explanation by city officials. And following the vote, Council members, the city attorney, and City Administrator Russ Hawes quickly fled the chambers to an off-limits area of City Hall without stating any reasons for the firing, but said the city would issue a press release on the matter Saturday.
Many of the same Council members who voted for Grounsell's ouster had just three months ago celebrated their new chief at a packed City Hall reception that attracted local dignitaries such as state Rep. Garry Smith and Greenville County Sheriff Steve Loftis, who exclaimed, "he's going to do a great job as chief of Simpsonville."
On Friday night, however, Geneva Lawrence and Sylvia Lockaby were the sole Council members to vote to retain Grounsell, who had come to the department with impeccable law enforcement credentials, education, and a reformist attitude. "They were the only ones that had any balls," Grounsell said of his defenders on Council.
Outside City Hall, Grounsell told Patch his termination was immediate and that he had been advised to clean out his office. Joined after the vote by his wife, Reese, Grounsell said he would likely discuss legal options with his attorney.
Grounsell was widely endorsed and liked by police department officers and staff. However, his termination Friday night came amid great unrest among the police department.
In a letter to Hawes and the Council in October, more than 25 officers and staff threatened mass resignations due largely to unhappiness with assistant police chief Colleen O'Neil, whom Grounsell beat out for the chief's position but who has remained as the department's second in command.
Grounsell told Patch he believed he was being punished for trying to reform the department and restore morale and ethics that Grounsell and his officers believe had eroded under previous police chief Charles Reece and O'Neil.
"I'm kind of dumbfounded right now," he said of his firing, which he did not expect. "It's evil. I'm telling you, it's bad."
"For the citizens, it's an injustice," Grounsell said. "A man comes in with strong ethical character and tries to adhere to those values and won't compromise (his) ethics. They voted me out of office."
Reached by phone after the meeting, Council member Lockaby told Patch: "He would have done an excellent job if he was just given the chance — but he was just never given the chance."
Because it was a personnel matter, Lockaby said she couldn't discuss the reasoning behind Grounsell's firing. But it was clear that she didn't like it or agree with it.
"I was 100 percent against the firing," she said. "I'm very upset by this whole thing.... There's a lot I'd like to say [about the situation] but can't, but I can say the chief had my full support.... I think he was doing an exceptional job, but on my behalf there just wasn't enough support."
Asked if the city's promised press release would shed any details on Grounsell's dismissal, Lockaby said, "I wouldn't expect too much."
What happens next is anybody's guess. The Council will now have to appoint an interim chief, and it was unclear Friday night if that appointee might be O'Neil, who held the interim position between Reece's retirement and Grounsell's hiring.
But the larger question is what will happen now with the department's 37 sworn officers, the vast majority of whom avidly supported Grounsell. Now that their popular chief has been fired, and rancor is sure to grow, there looms the specter of the officers' original threat from their October letter — mass resignations. Grounsell also said that city administration has been "head hunting" to find out those officers behind the letter, which could portend more firings and more crisis and upheaval within the department.
As for the officers themselves, Grounsell said he had no idea what they might do in the wake of his firing, and neither did Lockaby.
"I guess the next few days will tell," she said.
Stay tuned to Patch for more updates on this story, including an interview with Grounsell.