Crime & Courts

Lawsuit: Ex-Stafford police chief fired for investigating officer’s romance with teen

Stafford’s ex-police chief is suing the city after he says he was threatened and fired for launching an investigation into a former officer who had sex with a high school girl while he was on the force.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Wichita on Tuesday, Stephen Mattice of Harper says he was retaliated against and micromanaged after he questioned why there was no official report about how the officer was reprimanded in his personnel file. Mattice served as Stafford’s police chief for six months before his termination on Dec. 10, 2018.

The City of Stafford had no attorney listed in court records Thursday morning. An employee who answered the City of Stafford’s phone told The Eagle “there is no one at this time who can make a comment.”

Mattice’s lawsuit says he “became concerned over a large number of reports from citizens and other law enforcement officials” related to a “history of corruption and unaddressed police misconduct” at the Stafford Police Department. One of those reports was that the former officer “had been caught having sexual intercourse” with a 16-year-old girl while he was working for the Stafford Police Department, the lawsuit says. Another former police officer told Mattice about the conduct.

Mattice, in the suit, says when he launched an investigation to determine whether the former officer’s relationship with the girl was against the law, he was met with push back from the city.

In Kansas, the age of consent for a sexual relationship is 16. There is no law that specifically prohibits a law enforcement officer from engaging in a consensual relationship with a teen who is of legal age — although a 2018 law made it illegal for an officer to have sex with someone they pull over for traffic violations or detain in a criminal investigation.

Mattice’s lawsuit says when he told his direct supervisor, Stafford City Administrator Jami Downing, about the relationship, she “downplayed the allegations,” tried to discredit his source and “discouraged (him) ... from pressing the issue any further.”

Instead of dropping his investigation, Mattice turned information about the relationship over to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. When the KBI reviewed the former officer’s personnel file it found “no record of a reprimand in connection to allegations of ... (the officer) sleeping with a minor contained within,” the lawsuit says.

But the former officer admitted to having sex with the 16-year-old in an interview with a KBI investigator and said then-acting Stafford Police Chief Doug Brown suspended him from work for three days but doled out no other punishment.

Brown died from influenza in February 2018, according to news reports.

Mattice says in the lawsuit that when he asked Downing why there was no official report documenting the three-day suspension in the former officer’s personnel file, she told him that Brown “handled things his own way.” Mattice says that after the confrontation, Downing tried to pressure him into filing criminal charges against the former officer who disclosed the sexual relationship and became “antagonistic toward” him when he refused.

The lawsuit alleges Downing “was upset” with Mattice for “stirring the pot” by investigating the former officer and because news of the sexual relationship was starting “to spread across the City of Stafford.” Mattice claims Downing retaliated against him “by making him a target for reprimand through constant micro-management.”

Mattice also says in the lawsuit that the antagonism increased when the city’s office clerk accused him of neglecting his own 9-year-old son and threatened to call child welfare authorities after the boy chose to run home from school one day instead of riding with his mother in the family car. The boy’s mother followed the child home while he was running to ensure his safety, the lawsuit says.

During a Dec. 7 executive session meeting that Mattice requested with the city council, mayor and city attorney, Mattice “expressed his concerns ... that his work environment was being made extremely uncomfortable through both the unprofessional chastisement” over the investigation into the officer’s sexual contact with the teen girl “and the subsequent threats made against him and his family over frivolous allegations of child neglect,” the lawsuit says.

Three days later, on Dec. 10, the city council voted to let Downing take administrative action against Mattice.

The following day, Mattice was asked to resign. When he refused, he was fired, the lawsuit says.

Mattice says the termination damaged “his good name and reputation” and left him unable to find another job because of “negative stigma.” He was overlooked for two police jobs close to Stafford, one in St. John and one in Pratt, “because of the damage done to his name,” the suit contends.

Mattice is suing for an unspecified amount of damages including lost wages, emotional distress and moving expenses. He’s asked for a jury in Wichita to hear the case.

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Amy Renee Leiker has been reporting for The Wichita Eagle since 2010. She covers crime, courts and breaking news and updates the newspaper’s online databases. You can reach her at 316-268-6644. She’s an avid reader and mom of three in her non-work time.