CLEMSON — The Pickens police officer who was fired after posting details of his traffic stop of Clemson University football coach Dabo Swinney says he was wrongly ousted for doing his job.
The former officer, Michael McClatchy, clocked Swinney going 63 mph in a 35 mph zone Sept. 3 and wrote him a ticket in a grocery store parking lot while the coach waited to do his weekly radio show. McClatchy said Thursday that he posted details of the Sept. 3 stop on an Internet message board earlier this month to “set the record straight” because there were rumors swirling about the traffic stop.
McClatchy said that when he stopped Swinney at the Pickens Bi-Lo, the mayor of the town called the grocery store and attempted to intervene before the citation was issued to the popular coach.
Pickens Police Chief Rodney Gregory said earlier this month, and city officials reiterated Thursday, that McClatchy was fired for violating a city computer policy, an ethics code violation and violations of general orders. McClatchy was fired Sept. 17.
McClatchy spoke out Thursday alongside his lawyer, Anderson attorney Chuck Allen. Allen is a trustee at the University of South Carolina and also played football for the school.
McClatchy said the Pickens police chief knew he was going to write an Internet post about the Swinney stop. McClatchy said Gregory responded in a “humorous manner”: “Hell, it’s just a speeding ticket. Just don’t put my name out there.”
McClatchy said that when he first posted on 247Sports.com’s South Carolina site, he was on his personal computer at home Sept. 12. He said he corrected a grammatical error in the post two days later while he was at work, resulting in an edited timestamp on the post.
McClatchy said that it was common practice for Pickens police officers to engage in personal Internet use at work, and that no other officers had been disciplined for it.
McClatchy said he initially reduced the Swinney’s citation Sept. 3, writing the coach a ticket for driving 55 mph in a 35 mph zone. The fired officer said Police Chief Gregory further reduced the citation, issuing Swinney an $81.50 fine. The driver’s license points associated with the initial violation were also reduced, from six points to two.
Swinney has paid the ticket. A spokesman for Clemson University said Thursday that Swinney had no further comment about it.
Swinney wrote Gregory a Sept. 6 letter of apology and appreciation, which the police chief then gave to McClatchy before he was fired.
McClatchy gave the letter to the Independent Mail on Thursday.
Swinney wrote on his personalized Clemson football stationery, addressing the police chief.
I appreciate your cooperation to reduce the ticket and apologize for speeding and being a distraction. I have always had the utmost respect for law enforcement. I wish this situation had been handled differently, but I appreciate the latitude you provided with reducing the points and fine.
Please call on me if I can be of assistance.”
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Swinney’s brother Tracy was in the pickup with him at the time of the traffic stop. McClatchy said the brothers got out of the truck and approached his patrol car, then refused to return to their vehicle. McClatchy said Tracy Swinney told him that he was a retired Alabama police officer and asked McClatchy to take that into consideration.
Coach Swinney signed autographs for fans who approached him during the traffic stop.
McClatchy said Tracy Swinney made several degrading comments about him as an officer, including that he was “a disgrace to the badge” and that he would “get it one day.”
McClatchy said he believes Pickens Mayor David Owens was angry about the stop of Coach Swinney, and was angrier still that McClatchy refused to take the mayor’s call during the traffic stop.
Owens rebutted McClatchy’s statement Thursday, saying that he never called about the traffic stop, but that a manager at the Bi-Lo grocery store where it happened had called him.
“I spoke with the other officer involved at the scene,” Owens said. “I told them to continue doing their job and follow the proper procedures because there were a lot of people watching.
“I never said anything regarding how the ticket should be handled that day or at any time after the traffic stop,” Owens said. “The next day, after reviewing the video, I even told Chief Gregory to commend the officers on their professional handling of the situation. I also told Mr. McClatchy personally that he did a great job and that I had seen the video and he handled himself very professionally. I took no part in the decision to terminate him and did not even know until later that day.”
The city of Pickens issued a statement Thursday afternoon challenging McClatchy’s account of why he was fired, and also confirming that he had two previous disciplinary actions taken against him before he was fired this month.
“The City of Pickens did not terminate Mr. McClatchy for conduct related to the citation,” city administrator Katherine Brackett said. “His conduct during the traffic stop was professional and he followed all appropriate procedures. Mr. McClatchy was terminated for engaging in private activity on company time on company equipment in addition to violating several general orders. It is important to note that Mr. McClatchy spent an hour and a half during his police shift at the police station ‘editing’ his blog post.”
Brackett said McClatchy had skipped the city’s grievance process, which would allow him to explain to the police chief, the city administrator and the city council why he believes he was wrongfully fired.
“If necessary, the City is fully prepared to defend our decision,” Brackett said. “However, we will do so in a more proper setting, such as a courtroom, where these matters belong.”
McClatchy, 31, has been a law enforcement officer since 2005. He has served two stints at the Pickens Police Department, totaling about two years. He was promoted to corporal about a month before the Swinney traffic stop.
Allen, McClatchy’s attorney, said the former officer will “avail himself of every protection of the law.” He had not filed a lawsuit as of Thursday.