Despite a history of abusive and reckless behavior, Nashville’s Fraternal Order of Police president is being rewarded with a city-funded, full-time union job. Mayor Bill Purcell, who won the endorsement of the FOP last summer, quietly negotiated funding for the post in the city’s new budget.
A sergeant in the Police Department’s identification division and a 13-year veteran of the force, Jimmy Wheeler had been serving as the FOP president in a strictly part-time capacity. Even still, Wheeler has seized an unusually high profile in Metro. He’s led boisterous rallies in support of suspended officers, and last fall, in the midst of a series of embarrassing police scandals, he was bold enough to harshly criticize an assistant police chief for the force’s low morale. Most recently, amid a tight Metro budget year, he asked the Metro Council to fund 14-percent raises for police officers.
Now Wheeler has been able to leverage a full-time union gig, a $46,335 position fully funded by the city. Former Mayor Phil Bredesen had ended the arrangement of allowing Metro employees to hold full-time, fully paid union posts. But despite presiding over a number of unpopular budget cuts, Mayor Bill Purcell has resurrected the controversial practice, which went into effect July 1.
“The mayor felt it was important for our police and fire fighter representatives to focus on the working conditions and the treatment of their colleagues,” says mayoral aide Patrick Willard.
But surprisingly, the Purcell administration, which has drawn criticism for micro-managing various functions of Metro Government, did not conduct a simple background check on the FOP president. If they did, they might have been taken aback by what they discovered.
In July 1993, then-Police Chief Robert Kirchner dispatched a memo to Wheeler citing allegations of abuse from Kelley Sharer, a friend who later became Wheeler’s wife. The two had a rather antagonistic relationship. Ironically, Wheeler was first reported to have assaulted Sharer at an FOP Christmas party in 1990.
A full investigation of Sharer’s allegations, detailed in Kirchner’s memo, uncovered Wheeler’s history of violent behavior. On one occasion, he threatened to kill himself and Sharer. He also “held a gun to her head on at least one occasion.” The chief also documented Sharer’s accusation that Wheeler put “bubble gum in her hair, mashed it in, and pulled her hair.”
Perhaps the most damaging part of the memo, however, is that Wheeler himself did not dispute many of Sharer’s charges. Addressing Wheeler directly, the chief wrote, “You acknowledge that the arguments between you and Ms. Sharer have become physical, which resulted in Ms. Sharer being pushed over a couch, held down with your hand around her throat, and knocked to the ground.”
In the memo, the chief also cited Wheeler for additional displays of reckless and inappropriate behavior. On one occasion, Wheeler forced Sharer into the back seat of his police vehicle after a security guard asked him to leave a popular night spot. While at the club, Wheeler had reached for a gun in his boot, prompting his eviction. According to the memo, not only did Wheeler admit to drinking that night, he confessed to firing his gun into the air. He told investigators that he was simply trying to make Sharer talk to him.
In that one memo alone, Kirchner cited Wheeler for five different violations of departmental policy. A month later, the chief suspended the officer for 30 days without pay and ordered him to attend anger-management classes. Wheeler waived his right to a formal board hearing.
But he did not exactly come away a chastened man. On September 18, 1993, just four days after his suspension had ended, Wheeler and Sharer became embroiled in another heated altercation. This time she accused him of striking her in the face and knocking her down. The next day Sharer obtained a warrant for assault.
At the request of the state, the warrant was retired, and police investigators were not able to corroborate Sharer’s allegations. But Kirchner still reprimanded Wheeler for the incident. He cited him for two violations, including ignoring a previous order that he cease all contact with Sharer. Assistant Chief Robert Russell conducted the hearing. Interestingly enough, Wheeler exacted a revenge of sorts last fall when he criticized Russell’s management style to a television reporter.
Much like his first real bout with authority, Wheeler did not seem to respond well to Kirchner’s written reprimand. Having been transferred to the warrants division, Wheeler complained that he was being treated unfairly. In a May 1994 letter to Kirchner, he requested a transfer back to the patrol section. He wrote, “I did not become a police officer to answer phones or file warrants. The warrants office may be for some people, but it is not for me!”
Four months later, Wheeler penned another letter requesting to be moved to the patrol section. “I can understand you being upset with the things that have happened, but I cannot understand you freezing my career,” he wrote. He also cited the example of two other troubled officers who were later allowed to return to the patrol section.
Within two years, Wheeler won his old job back working patrol in Nashville’s South Sector. And today, Wheeler’s career is going just fine, boosted by a string of good luck. A few years ago, Turner discovered that Wheeler was never formally disciplined for one of his final altercations with Kelley Sharer. In a letter to the officer, Turner wrote that while disciplinary action should have been taken against Wheeler, too much time had elapsed to pursue any punishment.
Sharer could not be reached for comment about her relationship with Wheeler. Her mother, Mary Sharer, however, acknowledged that Wheeler and her daughter had a hostile relationship. And although they later married, they are now divorced, she said. “Both of them had bad tempers, but they’ve grown up.”
When reached by phone at an FOP youth camp in Wilson County, an angry Wheeler would not comment on his disciplinary record, saying only that the Scene is “a sleaze paper” for reviewing his personnel file. Asked what kind of qualifications an FOP president should have, Wheeler again bristled. “Be very, very careful,” he said.
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