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Riverdale fires officer for comments

By Greg Gelpi and Ed Brock

The firing of a controversial Riverdale police captain on Wednesday drew the ire of the Clayton County NAACP and others and sparked a protest outside City Hall.

Riverdale's Interim City Manager Sylvester Murray called Philip R. Neely Jr. at 7:50 a.m. Wednesday to tell him of his firing.

"He told me I would be fired if I didn't resign," Neely said. "I didn't see a reason to resign."

Several protesters from organizations such as the NAACP and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition sat in the Riverdale City Hall in support of Neely, voicing their opinions to the press and members of the Riverdale Police Department. Neely was among the protesters.

Radio personality Coz Carson said, "I am sitting here as a symbol of protest for the injustice on officers whose only crime is speaking out against the rampant racism of (the Riverdale Police Department)."

"I will not leave here until under arrest," said Carson, who was later taken into custody and charged with criminal trespass for refusing to leave City Hall.

Former Riverdale Police Department Capt. Carl Freeman said he hoped the protest would convince city leaders to reinstate him and Neely.

When asked about the firing, Murray wouldn't confirm that Neely had been fired. A letter signed by Murray on Wednesday, though, confirmed that he had been.

Neely said the termination came as a surprise and he has nothing to hide.

"I was honestly under the impression I was going to weather this storm and go back to work," Neely said. "I don't see any rules and regulations I've broken."

Protester Joe Beasley said, "Now that we have a legitimate African-American government, it is an abomination that they will preside over flawed decisions made by the former chief of police."

Neely was placed on administrative leave on March 25. In notice of termination that Murray sent to Neely on Wednesday the reason given for the termination was his appearance on the Coz Carson radio program.

"During that appearance you made several statements which you knew to be untrue and/or which demonstrated a reckless disregard for the truth," Murray wrote in the memorandum.

Murray also refers to Neely's statements during a television news interview in which he said that he got an indirect threat from a city employee in which he was told that his life might be in danger if he went to work. Murray said the statements Neely made "did not appear to be based on fact."

"In addition you also talked about confidential police department investigations in such a manner that was damaging to the police department's ability to effectively perform its function for the city," Murray said in the memo. "Finally, during the investigation you refused to answer direct questions from your superior officer regarding these events and were otherwise evasive and/or incomplete in the context of your responses to such questions."

Neely and several of his supporters went to Riverdale City Hall Wednesday night for a sit-in to protest his firing.

The Riverdale City Council met in executive session to discuss a personnel matter the night prior to Murray's call to Neely, but the council took no action after coming back into open session.

Riverdale Mayor Phaedra Graham was asked directly after the meeting if any action was taken in executive session or if any personnel changes were made. She said she couldn't discuss what happened in executive session but maintained that no action was taken. On Wednesday, she couldn't be reached and city officials wouldn't comment on personnel matters.

Dexter Matthews, the president of the Clayton County NAACP, is speaking, though, and said he is talking with his attorney about his options.

"We're researching this to see what action we can take," he said. "I need to talk to our counsel to see what we can do."

Neely was "unjustly terminated," Matthews said. "He should be reinstated immediately. We want to know where is the justice."

The ones who made racially derogatory remarks remain on the job, he said.

City Attorney Veronica Jones said that the city manager has the authority to fire city employees without receiving approval from the city council.

Staffer Zach Porter contributed to this story.