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Longtime Metro jail union leader has history of misconduct allegations

Jail cell
Getty Images/iStockphoto
A Jail Cell

In 2017, Tracy Dotson, then-president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 77 representing correctional officers at the Louisville jail, spread a salacious rumor.

Dotson told fellow FOP leaders attending a conference in Madisonville that he’d seen a video of a female union member having sex on a desk at the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections training facility, according to disciplinary records.

An investigation found no evidence such a video existed and, in sworn interviews with the jail’s investigators, Dotson walked back his claims. The video was just one of the many rumors floating around the jail, he said. In a letter summarizing the investigation, jail director Mark Bolton said Dotson characterized his claim to have personally seen the video as “simply drunk talk.”

Bolton considered spreading the rumor a significant act of misconduct. 

“Making a false statement of sexual misconduct creates a victim, it does damage to a person’s reputation,” Bolton wrote.

Dotson wasn’t disciplined, but the letter was placed in Dotson’s file, where it sits alongside more than two dozen notices of discipline since his first stint as a jail guard in 2000. 

While some of the disciplinary notices pertain to minor violations, they also include accusations of harassing coworkers, using unnecessary force against people held in the Louisville jail, antagonizing people housed in the detox unit and lying to investigators.

By 2019, when a colleague alleged in a lawsuit against the jail, the union and Metro government that Dotson was allowed to sexually harass her, Dotson had escaped firing three times. 

Dotson told KyCIR this incident, like many others in his file, is an example of the jail management using disciplinary actions to retaliate against him for his union activity.

“It’s been a long career,” Dotson said. “You make mistakes, you learn, you move on. But there’s a lot of retaliation in my personnel file for things that I’ve done in the union area.”

Jail spokesperson Steve Durham said in an email that numerous Metro Corrections Directors have recommended discipline against Dotson since he started at the jail.

“This volume of disciplinary write ups for one person is frustrating for management and, we believe, bad for our staff overall,” Durham said. “We are committed to examining this process in this light.” 

The 2019 harassment lawsuit is proceeding in the background as a crisis at the jail is making news daily. The union has said a staff shortage, with over 120 vacancies, has created the crisis and left the jail unsafe for staff and people held there. Last week, five people overdosed inside the jail and on Tuesday, the union held a vote of no confidence in jail director Dwayne Clark that passed by overwhelming majority.

Testimony from the former jail director as well as staffers paint a picture of difficult working conditions that preceded the current crisis, due in part to chronic understaffing and unchecked problematic behavior. The jail has been short-staffed for years, and Bolton said in an interview that has left management hesitant to fire people who they would have to spend time and resources to replace.

Current and former jail staff testified that Dotson has benefited from a culture of enforced loyalty that permeates the union and a contract which makes it difficult for jail management to hold bad actors accountable.

Dotson is no longer the union president; he served two terms from 2014 to 2020. But he’s still on the executive board, and when union members led a community meeting on September 21 to discuss the jail, Dotson did much of the speaking, placing blame for the turmoil squarely at the feet of the jail’s management team.

"I'm telling you now that if you have a mother, son, daughter, a brother, or loved one inside our jail, they're not safe,” Dotson said at the meeting

Lawsuit alleges harassment

Emily Nichols said in court records that she started interacting regularly with Dotson in January 2017 as a new officer, with less than a year on the job. She was struggling with a workplace injury to her dominant hand. 

Nichols declined to speak with KyCIR through her lawyer. Nichols still works at the jail, and alleges in her 2019 lawsuit that the city had “an abundance of prior, first-hand knowledge that Tracy Dotson sexually harassed officers and union members.”

Dotson is not a named defendant in the lawsuit; he pointed out that the jail investigated and cleared him in its internal investigation.

The city has denied the allegation in court filings, arguing that Dotson was acting in his capacity as FOP president, not on behalf of Metro government. 

Dotson saw Nichols struggling to keep up with the demands of her post due to her injury, she said in a deposition in September 2020, and he offered to help. She said this professional connection quickly transitioned to a flirtatious texting relationship.

In messages Dotson provided to investigators, the two flirt, discuss Nichols’ injury and internal politics at the jail. Dotson also asks repeatedly for nude photos.

According to Nichols’ complaint and testimony, she sent some less revealing pictures of herself to Dotson “in an effort to appease” him because early on in their interactions, Dotson told her she needed to “make me want to help you.” 

In depositions, Nichols said she was “playing a role” because it seemed the only way to get the union’s help with her injury.

Nichols was assigned a training shift in early February 2017, which pays an extra $2 an hour. When she asked Dotson about the training assignment over text messages, Dotson responded with “someone is looking out for u.” 

Nichols says the next day, Dotson grabbed her and forced her to kiss him on Metro property.

When Nichols tried to transition to a strictly professional relationship, she said Dotson became less enthusiastic.

“Good luck with ur situations,” Dotson texted, though he later told investigators he was referring to problems with Nichols’ personal life.

Days later, Nichols said she was assigned back to the booking floor, a physically demanding post where her injury occurred.

Nichols told jail management that she believed she wasn’t getting the help she needed because of her experience with Dotson, and an investigation was opened.

Dotson told jail investigators the relationship was consensual, and not transactional. The standards unit found “insufficient evidence to either prove or disprove the allegation”.

But personnel records show that by the time he met Nichols, Dotson already had a long history of discipline.

Two dozen disciplines and three firing recommendations

Dotson’s career at Metro Corrections began in 2000.

A disciplinary file obtained through a records request shows that, by 2002, Dotson was disciplined for insubordination and for saying he didn’t like someone held at the jail because the person was Black. 

Investigators recommended his firing after two separate investigations found Dotson provoked people held at the jail by kicking their shoes or dangling a bag of candy while walking past the detox cell. A third found he pushed an incarcerated person when a verbal confrontation turned physical. Dotson didn’t restrain the individual and the investigation deemed him “incompetent.”

Dotson resigned before a disciplinary hearing could take place, according to the files.

Dotson returned to the jail in 2003.

In the four years that followed, Dotson’s files show he was disciplined for absenteeism, spitting chewing tobacco into a coworker’s soda bottle, and using language a colleague called an inappropriate generalization against incarcerated people from the West End.

Dotson was fired in December 2007 after he swept the legs out from under an inebriated, handcuffed person. The individual lost consciousness and needed stitches for the head injury he sustained when Dotson took him to the floor.

Dotson appealed, claiming the force was reasonable to get an uncooperative person under control. Metro government sustained his firing after concluding from security footage that Dotson didn’t need to use force. 

“His actions were unwarranted and excessive in nature,” the assistant human resources director said in a letter to Dotson’s attorney.

With the union’s help, Dotson took his appeal a step further, entering into arbitration.

Three people testified in support of Dotson, including an expert witness: Alex Payne, at the time a sergeant at the Jeffersontown Police Department and a retired Kentucky State Police trooper.

Payne worked at the state police training academy, where the Courier Journal found he first authored presentations quoting Confederate Gen. Robert Lee and encouraging a “warrior mindset.” Payne would be named commissioner of Kentucky Department of Criminal Justice Training in 2019, and retired the following year. 

At the arbitration hearing, Payne argued Dotson did what he had to do to get the uncooperative person under control, according to a summary written by the arbiter. “Just because someone is handcuffed does not mean he/she is under control,” Payne testified, and “sometimes officers have used deadly force against handcuffed prisoners with justification.”

The third-party arbiter agreed that Dotson was justified in using force because he had reason to believe the person was about to resist physically.

Dotson was reinstated at the jail in August 2008, with back pay.

Dotson claims the brief termination was political. 

“Sometimes things that are termination recommendations for some folks aren't for others, depending on how your relationship with management is,” Dotson said. “My relationship with management has been to basically demand better conditions and treatment for the members.”

In 2011, the standards unit recommended for a third time that Dotson’s employment be terminated after he allegedly used force against a person held at the jail who said he looked like Andy Griffith.

Dotson denied using unnecessary force, claiming in a report he used only “verbal commands.” 

But another officer came forward and said they saw Dotson with his arm around the person’s neck.

Investigators recommended he be fired.

But at Dotson’s pre-termination hearing, director Mark Bolton reduced his punishment to a 5-day suspension. Bolton said in an interview that disciplinary actions against union members typically involved a bargaining process where the punishment was reduced.

Blackmail allegations

In August, former jail director Bolton said in a sworn deposition that Dotson’s name came up in discipline conversations “more than just about anyone else’s during my tenure there.”

Bolton retired in 2019 after 11 years running the jail. He said Dotson, who represented more than 500 Metro Corrections officers as union head, is known to flex the FOP’s muscle. 

Bolton also claimed in his deposition that he’s spoken to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about Dotson. The FBI said it cannot confirm or deny any investigations at the Louisville jail.

Attorney Todd Lewis, who represents Tracy Dotson, said he questions Bolton’s veracity given the hostile relationship between the two and the fact that Dotson’s attorney was unable to cross examine the former director. 

County Attorney Mike O’Connell’s office declined to comment on pending litigation.

Two other current jail employees testified as part of that lawsuit that Dotson blackmailed them with an explicit photo.

The officers were having an affair several years ago, they testified separately, and the female officer said she also had a relationship with Dotson. He asked her to get an explicit photo of the other man, according to her testimony, and she sent Dotson a photo of the man’s erect penis, taken in the offices at the jail.

She testified that Dotson sent the photo to her then-husband, who she was in the process of divorcing. Over the years that followed, she said Dotson attempted to blackmail her with the photo, though she retained no proof.

One of the officers testified that Dotson’s position as the FOP president left them afraid of losing his protection, or that the union would retaliate, if they spoke up.

When the male officer was up for a promotion in 2018, the Professional Standards Unit obtained the photo and launched an investigation. 

Records show that Dotson admitted to receiving the photo, but denied using it for blackmail and was cleared of any wrongdoing.

But that investigation concluded the two officers engaged in sexual activity at the jail a few years prior. 

Both officers were demoted.

Contract questioned

Former director Bolton said the union’s contract has long been loaded with provisions that made it difficult for management to hold problem employees accountable.

“The amount of bureaucracy and second, third, fourth chances that it allows disruptive and poor employees to engage in makes it very, very difficult from a leadership position to hold folks accountable,” Bolton said.

Current union president Daniel Johnson countered that, saying Bolton was able to terminate a lot of people during his tenure.

“The only thing people ask for is due process and representation,” Johnson said. “I don't believe that's too much of a hurdle.”

Deputy director Durham said the jail has taken action in cases of serious misconduct, like inmate abuse or those officers causing harm to their co-workers. “[Current director Dwayne] Clark believes allegations of bad behavior should result in a fair review, including examining the harm caused by the offending employee’s conduct and the impact of discipline on the employee,” Durham wrote. 

Both Bolton and Dotson were involved in negotiating the current union contract, signed in 2016 and expiring in 2023. Bolton said he pushed for softer language regarding issues like progressive discipline during negotiations, but that “once something goes into a contract that benefits from one party over another, those provisions are never coming out.”

Martin Horn, a professor emeritus of corrections at John Jay College, reviewed the contract for KyCIR.

Horn has run correctional facilities in New York City and Pennsylvania. He said Louisville’s contract with correctional officers who run the Louisville jail is extraordinary in several ways: 

Horn doesn’t think it’s good practice for corrections officers to organize into the Fraternal Order of Police, though it is becoming increasingly common.

“[Police and corrections officers] are two very distinct work units with very distinct jobs and very distinct sets of rules,” Horn said.

The jail has its own Professional Standards Unit which is composed of members of the union, an arrangement Horn said could create “a question of dual loyalty.”

“It's the ultimate what we refer to as ‘the blue wall of silence,’” Horn said. “It's loyalty to your fellow officers rather than loyalty to your oath of office.”

But Johnson said the union doesn’t interfere with the investigative unit. He pointed to Dotson’s record as proof of this, since investigators sustained allegations against Dotson.

The contract also includes a 60-day time limit on imposing disciplinary actions, from the time a possible infraction is discovered. This is the provision Bolton cited in saying too much time passed to discipline Dotson for spreading the sex tape rumor. Horn said 60 days is "awfully short," and can limit management’s disciplinary options. 

The contract also limits how long previous infractions can be considered when dolling out disciplinary actions for a new violation: one year for minor infractions and three years for more serious offenses.

In his most recent disciplinary action in April, Dotson was threatened with a five-day suspension for having his cell phone in a secure area. Dotson claimed in an emailed response that he was allowed to have the cell phone inside the jail because of his union responsibilities. 

“The harassment and hostile working environment I am experiencing… from Metro Corrections and its commanders is becoming untenable,” Dotson wrote.

Contact Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.